Living with AIDS, educating our communities

In 1993, when Shana Cozad was 21 years old, she was a pre-med student with a 4.0 GPA, had a baby son and her second boyfriend ever, who was also her second sexual partner ever.

Her boyfriend was someone she knew she could take home to her parents. He was a young man in a master’s program at her school and appeared to have his life put together. Still, Cozad asked the right questions about his sexual history: whether he had been tested for sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS. He told her he was clean.

He stuck with that claim throughout their relationship, until the day she broke up with him. That’s when he revealed his secret.

“Well guess what,” he said. “I have AIDS and now so do you.”

Cozad shared this story at a presentation at Northwest Indian College on March 19. She explained that her boyfriend told her he knew he was dying and he wanted someone to die with.

At first Cozad didn’t believe him, but got tested anyway. She had to wait a very long two weeks for her test results. At that point, the disease was so new the nurse didn’t know how to tell Cozad her results – she had never had to tell a patient they had AIDS before – and when the nurse told Cozad, she didn’t believe her. She had never been promiscuous; she had never done drugs; it didn’t make sense, she said.

“No. This can’t be right,” Cozad told her nurse.

So she was tested two more times. Both times the tests came back positive.

“I did not feel like someone who had a deadly disease coursing through my veins, but I did,” Cozad said.

When Cozad was 22, she saw a doctor specializing in HIV/AIDS, he told her she would have two to five years to live – that she would probably be dead by her son’s seventh birthday.

Cozad, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, was abandoned by her non-Native adopted family when she told them she had AIDS. Shortly after, she turned to ceremony for healing and guidance. That’s what took her to the Rabbit Lodge, where a group of elders told her, “We know what you have. You will be okay. Do not be afraid.”

The elders explained to her that humans have been acting like a virus to the earth; that we have hurt her immune system, and she had no other choice but to give us something help us understand what we’re doing. This perspective helped Cozad accept her condition.

Now, Cozad does more than accept her that she has AIDS. She spends much of her time sharing her story with tribal communities and educating people of all ages about how people get AIDS, how they don’t get AIDS, and what it’s like to live with AIDS.

Cozad’s work is increasingly important. “HIV/AIDS is a critical and growing health issue within our Native population,” according to Indian Health Services. This is also the message Cozad shares with her audiences.
Cozad has survived long past the five years the doctor said she would have. James’s seventh birthday came and went, and so have many more, and Cozad was there to see all of them, including his most recent. James just turned 20.

Cozad’s life expectancy was greatly expanded by a development in 1996. That year, which was two years after she was diagnosed, AIDS medication became available. Even with the medications, which run upwards of $27,000 per year, Cozad still gets sick, but it has kept her with us long enough to educate our communities, and to marry a man she loves and have two more children, who were both born HIV negative.

Shana Cozad can be reached at