By Tiffany E. Browne
Twenty-two years ago Earleatha “Cookie” Johnson began the ultimate crash course; fighting and surviving AIDS/HIV 101. At its beginning, it is a course that took a deer-caught-in-headlights Cookie and transformed her into a fighter for others; especially for women and children living with or who are at risk for contracting the virus. The lessons began when her husband, famed NBA player Earvin “Magic” Johnson told her privately that he had contracted Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). A few days later, on November 7, 1991, the public caught a glimpse of her as she sat dressed in white next to her husband. Her face was expressionless, but a fearless and optimistic Magic took to the podium and made the same announcement to the world.
“I was still in shock,” says Johnson. “I was scared to death that he was going to die, because at that time that’s what you heard or knew; that people were dying from this.”
At the time of the announcement Johnson was two months pregnant with their first child. Naturally she worried about the fate of their unborn son and herself. She was tested and the results were negative. Immediately, the Johnsons spent time with pediatric AIDS/HIV Awareness advocate Elizabeth Glaser, whose own story fueled their inspiration. Glaser had contracted HIV during a blood transfusion that had taken place when she gave birth to her daughter. She had unknowingly passed the virus onto her daughter through her breast milk and when she became pregnant with her second child her unborn son had contracted the virus while in utero.
“We met Elizabeth Glaser in the first week. She instilled the best advice. First, educate yourself as much as possible about the virus. Then educate those around you. Then fight,” says Johnson.
Sadly, Glaser and her daughter lost their battle, but not before leaving room for Johnson and others to keep going with a mission and a message that will hopefully lead towards an AIDS-free generation.
“I loved the time we spent with her. You walked into her house feeling down, but by the time you came out you were ready to go punch something,” laughs Johnson.
Still, the recent Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation honoree, would not lace up her boxing gloves until much later. Though she has always been in the trenches with her husband, serving as a board member of the Magic Johnson Foundation, it was not until an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show, that Johnson walked out of the shadows.
“We were on the show for World AIDS Day to discuss the ‘I Stand with Magic’ campaign. There was a twenty-something year old woman in the audience living with HIV. She was asked about the time she found out about her diagnoses. She said when her doctor told her the news her reply was ‘what is that?’ My husband and I looked at each other and I asked her where was she when my husband made his announcement. She responded ‘I was six years old.’ That’s when it hit me. We have a whole new generation that needs to be educated about this,” says Johnson.
The fight was on. She became a spokesperson for the National Medical Immunization Public Service Announcement and was an honorary chairperson for the Children’s Defense Fund. By regularly speaking with women’s groups, high school students and at various events, Johnson drills a solid message. She continuously makes sure the message is loud so that the current generation of youth, who see Magic looking healthy and fit, will not have any misconceptions or become complacent in thinking they will not die.
“I tell people to go and educate themselves on how you come in contact with it. There are so many ways to contract the virus and people need to take a moment to sit down and read about it,” says Johnson. “I also tell folks to get tested annually. Make it a part of your physical exam. I think if people thought of it in that way: including it in your annual physical: then maybe the stigma will fall off.”
She consistently preaches this message, while also talking about the importance of eating healthier, educating yourself about various medicines, vitamins and herbs to help build the immune system for someone who is living with the virus. In case there was any question if she was all talk, Johnson assures that she practices what she preaches.
“Of course we practice safe sex. We have to. Eating healthier; we started that right away. Now we’re on a super healthy kick. For me I cut out diary. I’ll do a little sugar every now and then. I also exercise,” says Johnson.
She is also quick to shoot down rumors that her husband used his money and influence to buy a super drug or cure for himself. “That is just so ridiculous,” says Johnson. She asserts that her husband’s good health has been attributed to his early diagnoses, his consistency with taking his medication and a healthy diet.
“He has never been sick from the disease. In the beginning he was sick, but that was because he was on a cocktail of meds,” says Johnson.
While she has seen progress in terms of research and the fact that people are talking about it more, she is aware that a lot of work is still needed, especially for African American communities.
“When you think about the African American community, historically our focal point is the church. Church is the one place where everyone goes when they have a problem. With this disease you can’t go to church, because there is still a stigma there,” says Johnson. “People have to start talking to their children and don’t treat family members living with it like a leper. Embrace them, because the more a person internalizes what they are going through, the sicker they will be.”
Her work in advocating for children formed out of her passion and care as a mother. Again, she spreads the message about self educating when it comes to your child’s medical needs and the importance of providing affordable access to parents who need to have their children immunized.
Unfortunately, with all the great things Johnson and other advocates have done for the welfare of humanity, sometimes there is a concern that the message is lost in the glitz of the parties and fundraising, especially when it comes to AIDS/HIV causes. While Johnson does not doubt it happens, she firmly believes for her and her husband the message is never lost.
“Because we have a personal testimony, the message doesn’t get lost. We always bring it back to the issue at hand,” says Johnson.
Johnson, who has always relied on her faith but went deeper with it at the beginning of this journey, contemplates on the past twenty-two years and what it means to share with and serve others. “It means EVERYTHING! I honestly believe God blesses people to bless other people. I don’t think God gave Earvin the disease, but he gave him purpose to talk about it,” reflects Johnson. “When God blesses you with monetary things he doesn’t give it to you to keep it. I wouldn’t even feel right if I didn’t do this. It’s part of who we are.”
Johnson further reflects, “I think there is more we can do [for the AIDS/HIV cause]. We just need to sit down and figure it out. I don’t think the government is doing enough. I think if more organizations come together and figure out what needs to be done we can get the government to respond to do more.”
Her ultimate wish is for the disease to end. How do we do this? How do we stop new infections from arising? Johnson believes it is simple, but requires persistent work to get people to listen; self educate and take advantage of preventions.
Johnson just may get her wish. At press time, reports were circulating that a Mississippi toddler had been “functionally cured” of HIV. Meaning, because of early intervention with antiretroviral drugs, the virus is small and long term treatment is not needed and standard clinical tests cannot detect the virus.
“If people can respect one another, maybe we can have a world free of HIV and AIDS. We can have a new generation starting off free from the disease,” says an optimistic Johnson. “This disease can stop if people will take the time to understand it.