Surviving a personal tsunami

September 28, 2017

by Raven Feagins

Michelle Hennigan is a compassionate mother of one who lives in the small village of Johnsburg – just over an hour and a half outside of Chicago. Michelle loved providing a comfortable lifestyle for her and her daughter, but in 1999 – just as she was moving up in her career – Michelle became extremely ill with no sign of recovery.

"I was so sick at the time; I knew something was seriously wrong," says Michelle. "I had gone to the emergency room a couple of times and, because I was working a couple of different jobs, I thought it was possibly stress-related. Then, they did some blood work, and the doctor said something about blood counts."

Michelle's experience in health care helped her realize that the doctor was referring to her T cell count – leading to the unsettling realization that she may be experiencing complications related to AIDS. She immediately told the doctors that she wanted to take an HIV test, and – just as she thought – the test came back positive.

"After the initial shock, I was kind of practical about it – I think I was a little bit detached. I was so sick and, being a single mom with a little one ... I was just practical."

Although Michelle physically felt better again, her mental health worsened as she sank into a deep depression. Michelle slowly become estranged from her close friends and family because of stigma against people living with HIV. Eventually, she struggled with a bad relationship with alcohol.

"I would kind of say it was like a tsunami. There's one wave and then there's another wave and another one. Just when you think you can come up for air and everything's okay, you get hit again."

Michelle was lonely. She didn't have anyone to talk to about being newly diagnosed with HIV. The only referral she received after her diagnosis was to an infectious disease doctor. Michelle didn't know where to turn for emotional or social support.

After receiving support to change her relationship with alcohol at a local church, Michelle decided it was time to find someone to support her with her new HIV diagnosis. She made phone calls to different organizations in the area, hoping someone on the other line will lead her in the right direction. One of those calls was to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

We connected Michelle to Open Door Health Center in Elgin, where she found helping relationships from support groups, therapy and her case manager, Sharon Marach. Michelle no longer felt like she was alone. Michelle found the resources she needs to flourish as a healthy, HIV-positive woman.

"She uses me more for resources," Sharon said. "we also talk about things like what she wants to do in the future. Whatever she needs, I can provide it, and, if I can't, I'll find it."

At AFC, we connect 159 case managers like Sharon with more than 6,000 people like Michelle every year. Together, they overcome health challenges, daily life struggles and so much more.

Now, the two of them are working out next steps for Michelle; she’s planning a move to Texas. Sharon is connecting Michelle to the HIV services there so she never feels alone again.

We receive calls like the one from Michelle on a daily basis. If you, or someone you know, needs help accessing HIV-related counseling, case management or other support services, give us a call at 312-922-2322 or send us a message at


Categorized under Case management, Illinois and Inside Story.

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