Not a death sentence: Edmonton HIV survivor becomes advocate

Ann Favel was blindsided the day she was pulled from her jail cell and told that she had HIV. Nearly a decade later, she now works as a volunteer with HIV Edmonton.

'You don't have to look down on me just because I have this virus in me'

Ann Favel, on stage with Indigenous activist Lewis Cardinal, shared her story in September during the 2017 AIDS Walk in Edmonton. (HIV Edmonton)

Ann Favel was blindsided the day she was pulled from her jail cell and told that she had HIV.

The diagnosis came after a regular medical check-up conducted a few weeks earlier.

"They came and got me from my cell and took me to a little room, and disclosed to me that I was HIV positive," said Favel. "And then they put me back into my cell."

In and out of prison for years, she thought her diagnosis was a death sentence.

"I didn't know that much about HIV at the time," said Favel, who nearly a decade later now works as a volunteer with HIV Edmonton. "All I heard about it was, if you get it you're going to die."

All I heard about it was, if you get it, you're going to die.- Ann Favel

After they told her, she fell deeper into her addiction, and gave up any hope of finding sobriety or stability in her life.

She simply assumed there were no treatment options. 

"They didn't try to educate me about it or anything," Favel recalled in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Friday, World AIDS Day. "They just put me back into my cell, and I was in there by myself to dwell on it.

"It just threw me deeper into it, because I didn't care. You know, I'm going to die anyways."

'They just put me back into my cell and I was in there by myself to dwell on it."

Favel's final incarceration was in 2011. She had been convicted repeatedly for drug trafficking, something she said she did to feed her own addiction.

She credits Edmonton's Drug Treatment Court Service, a rehabilitative court program intended to help addicts, with giving her a chance at a better life.

After going through the program, Favel got clean and started making changes.

"I was going to see my HIV doctor in handcuffs all the time, and I didn't get treatment until 2011, just because of the lifestyle I was living," said Favel, 51.

"By going through drug treatment court, they put me on the right path. They got me the help that I needed.

"That was the first place that gave me back my voice."

After she got sober, Favel started seeing her family again, after 13 years of estrangement.

She found a supportive family doctor who put her on daily medication and encouraged her to lean on the staff at HIV Edmonton.

"It took me a while to go there," she said. "And then when I did, I just fell in love with them, and they became my family."

'Very chaotic lives'

Favel's story is not uncommon, said Laura Keegan, director of public engagement at HIV Edmonton, a harm reduction agency founded in 1984.

What makes her story stand out is that she beat her addiction and changed her life, said Keegan.

"In lots of ways it's very typical and in some ways it's not typical," she said. "Because Ann has been able to make changes in her life, so her health outcome right now is very good. And will continue to be for decades and decades to come.

"But it's not always that way for everyone."

With the right treatment, people with the virus can lead healthy lives, but not everyone is able to access care, said Keegan.

For people with substance abuse problems, there are barriers to care. Some doctors are unwilling to treat addicts, she said. Antiviral drugs can be expensive and must be taken in a regimented way to be effective.

"We have a lot of very vulnerable people that are clients of HIV Edmonton that are still leading very chaotic lives, and it's very difficult for them to stay on the treatment regime," said Keegan. 

"We have issues of poverty and homelessness and food security." 

Alberta is has seen an increase in HIV rates in recent years.

According to the latest figures from the provincial government, HIV rates per 100,000 population increased from 5.5 in 2015 to 6.63 in 2016, and the number of cases rose to 282 last year.

Though advances in medical research continue to improve quality of life for people with the virus, Keegan said clients continue to feel shame.

"Stigma is keeping people away from getting help or protecting themselves," she said. 

'I feel great'

Favel remains a fixture at HIV Edmonton's outreach centre. As both client and volunteer, she's proud to share her survival story

She hopes it will help inspire others. People need to know that HIV is not a death sentence, she said.

Helping others gives her hope for the future. 

"It gives an opportunity for people to know what we go through living with HIV," she said. 

"You don't have to look down on me just because I have this virus in me. I always say, I'm a human being just like you, so please treat me like one."

Listen to Edmonton AM with host Mark Connolly, weekday mornings at CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM in Edmonton. Follow the morning crew on Twitter @EdmAMCBC.