Ernesto Olea’s story is still being written

First-year ECC nursing student refuses to let HIV diagnosis define him

Shelby Anne Taylor, Editor-in-Chief


The waxy paper on the examination table crinkled under Ernesto Olea as he sat across from his doctor, dreading the conversation about to take place.

“Did you see your results?” she asked. 

“Yes,” Olea said. “I have HIV.”

The doctor nodded quietly in reply.

Silence fell over the room as Olea struggled to find words amid the overwhelming emotions that were flooding his body.

“I couldn’t even look at her,” he recalled of that moment. “I didn’t know what to do. It was embarrassing, but it was more disappointment than embarrassment to me.”

Olea decided to break the silence by asking if HIV was the reason he had developed the persistent cough that brought him to the doctor in the first place. Just one week prior, he had come to get her opinion about an unrelenting cough and swollen lymph nodes.

At that appointment, his doctor noticed white patches of candida in his mouth, a common symptom of HIV, and told him he needed to get some testing done. She made no mention of HIV when she sent him to the hospital, saying only that she needed to see him again once he got his results back.

“They did all of these tests at the hospital,” Olea recalled. “They drew blood. They did this thing where I blew into a bag- it was kind of like a balloon- and I just thought it was all for my cough.”

Olea received an email three days later on March 15, 2021, notifying him that his results were available, but it wasn’t until he opened the file in his healthcare app that he saw the diagnosis.

“I was reading it over and it said HIV positive, and I was like, ‘Whoa, where did this come from?’” Olea said. “It was kind of shocking. As I was reading it, I didn’t understand it. So, I just kept thinking, ‘Oh, this is probably a test they did, they made a mistake or something.’ I was in denial the whole day.”

For a few days, Olea kept his results a secret, unable to fully accept them yet. Sitting in front of his doctor, he could no longer avoid the truth. She confirmed that the cough was related to HIV and told him he needed to get X-rays of his chest. Olea had nothing left to say at the end of the appointment.

“Are you sure you’re okay and you’re not going to be harming yourself over this?” the doctor asked.

“I think I’m going to be fine, I’ll be okay,” Olea replied. And he meant it.

You would never know Olea has such a serious diagnosis. The 22-year-old is sunshine personified; he starts and ends every sentence with a grin, occasionally flipping imaginary long locks over his shoulder for dramatic flair— a fitting mannerism for someone voted Most Dramatic in high school. His real hair is cropped and dyed blond, the blue and silver pigments of months past long washed away.

Fun finds Ernie Olea wherever he goes. On the outside of his left shoulder sits a small tattoo of a cartoon taco, the result of spontaneity and a $13 Black Friday deal at the mall. Operating under the belief that “we’re only here once, so we might as well live the best we can,” Olea commits fully to every passion he has. He created his own makeup line, earnestly studies astrology and had a brief career as a drag queen— a passion he plans to return to one day.

Perhaps his most defining trait, Olea is relentlessly positive. His genuine enthusiasm for life is contagious and his capacity for optimism unmatched. Within minutes of meeting him, it is clear that Olea has mastered the art of sanguinity.

“After I got diagnosed, I felt like if I died, it would be fine,” he said when first asked about his diagnosis. “I used to be scared of dying, but once I got HIV, I was like, ‘Okay, at least I know that I was happy all the time. So, if I die tomorrow, everyone is going to know me as someone who was happy all of the time.’”

Olea’s commitment to happiness extends beyond his words. On his left wrist is a tattoo of the Japanese character for the word “happiness.” He got it a month before officially being diagnosed with HIV.

“I was really thin and sick, and I was wondering what was wrong with me,” he said. “And obviously, I didn’t know why just yet, so I was like, ‘Whatever happens, I’ve got to make sure I’m happy 24/7.’ So, I got the tattoo. Now, I always look to it to find my happiness with everything I’m going through.”

That weight loss was the first change Olea noticed in his health. During the summer of 2020, he began to lose weight rapidly without trying. At the time, he didn’t think much of it and figured it would eventually resolve itself.

But in November of 2020, he developed what he believed to be a seasonal winter cough. After three months of increased coughing and fruitless weeks of taking cough medicine daily, Olea realized he needed to seek medical help. When he made the appointment to see his doctor on March 12, 2021, HIV was the last thing on his mind.

It was at that appointment that Olea’s doctor noticed the yeast infection in his mouth and sent him to get the tests that would ultimately lead to his HIV diagnosis. At the time, testing positive for HIV felt like the biggest possible surprise to Olea, but it was only the beginning of what would become a three-month battle with his own body.

After getting the X-rays his doctor ordered at their follow-up appointment, Olea was informed that fluid had been detected in his lungs. Before he had time to process that information, he found himself with sudden abdominal discomfort and an inability to relieve himself in the bathroom.

That discomfort turned out to be a burst appendix. Olea had to get an appendectomy on March 31, 2021, just over two weeks after being diagnosed with HIV.

Days later in April, he found himself feeling ill while visiting his sister in Florida. He went to the hospital where he was admitted after being diagnosed with atypical pneumonia— a symptom of HIV that developed from the fluid in his lungs. When he arrived at the hospital, Olea weighed only 98 pounds.

“It was such a whirlwind,” Olea said. “I was like, ‘Ugh! I hate this!’ I was just so over it all.”

Olea had to wait to start HIV medication until he could receive antibiotic treatment for the pneumonia. In what felt like an impossibly unfair twist of events, Olea had a negative reaction to the antibiotics and was hospitalized a third time back in Illinois, this time for Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare disorder that causes severe reactions to medication.

“It caused blisters to form all over my arms,” Olea recalled. “And I had a bunch of dark patches all over my arms because of all the little blisters. It was really bad.”

His hospital room was small, sterile, and mostly empty aside from a TV with limited channels that was mounted to the wall.

“It was all white,” Olea said of his room. “Everything was white, but my socks were yellow. That’s the one thing that stood out. White sheets with yellow socks sticking out.”

While there, Olea began receiving treatment for his HIV symptoms, starting with the candida in his mouth.

“I had a swish and swallow thing,” Olea recalled. “It tasted pretty good actually, it wasn’t that bad. They would give me a little bit of that four times a day. I would put it in my mouth and swish it around and swallow it.”

Olea’s mouth had developed sores along with the candida, making it difficult for him to eat and receive oral medication.

“I couldn’t take the pills because of the sores in my mouth, so they would give me liquid,” Olea said. “If I really did have to take a pill, they would crush it and put it in applesauce so I could eat it. When I [needed to] eat it, they would give me the same thing they give mouth cancer patients. It numbs your mouth so you can eat, and it won’t hurt. It felt weird because everything was numb inside my mouth.”

Olea was often tired, finding sleep difficult because of the discomfort of having an IV— the location of which changed frequently during his stay. Every morning at 7 o’clock, nurses would come to Olea’s room to check his IV and vitals.

“They would draw blood every single day and I was like, ‘I have HIV. Y’all know I ain’t got no blood in me!’” Olea recalled.

The week and a half Olea spent in the hospital during his third admittance proved to be the most trying. Though he was slowly getting better and progress was being made with his symptoms, some days were still incredibly difficult.

“There was one day I couldn’t even drink my nutrition shakes,” Olea said. “I wanted to give up and I was crying, but the nurse kept telling me I would be okay. I felt bad because she was seeing me cry and I wanted it all to be done.”

Olea’s hallmark optimism was quickly extinguished during this period. His seemingly indestructible spirit of positivity had finally taken one too many blows, and his loved ones could tell.

“When he was in the hospital it was pretty heartbreaking,” said Olea’s older brother Ivan. “It really hurt me inside. It felt like a movie in a way, all of the stuff that happened. … He wasn’t himself, that’s for sure. He was a different person. He wasn’t the loud and eccentric person you know now; he was very quiet and pretty serious, honestly. It was a little scary.”

At the time of his third hospitalization, Olea’s parents and two older siblings were the only people who knew of his HIV diagnosis. When friends came to visit him, Olea only told them he had Stevens-Johnson Syndrome from the pneumonia medication but did not explain what caused the pneumonia.

One of those visitors was Betsy Arteaga, one of Olea’s closest friends. At the time of this story’s publication, Olea still has not shared his HIV status with anyone outside of his family, including Arteaga. But being unaware of the truth about Olea’s diagnosis has not stopped her from trying to support him throughout his health journey.

“I remember when he lost a lot of weight, he was telling me that people kept asking him why he looked so skinny,” Arteaga recalled. “I told him to just ignore it, but he was very vulnerable and so self-conscious. He was very gloomy and I felt like I needed to be that light, that supportive person he has always been for me.”

Arteaga had never before seen Olea feel self-conscious in the four years she had known him.

“I think that was the moment where I was like, ‘Oh man,’ Arteaga said. “He was trying so hard to be positive, but he was also in a very vulnerable state where it was so hard for him to be that. [He was] really down and that was the first time where I saw him very sad. It was a surreal moment where I realized even with the happiest people, something bad can happen.”

Even without a full knowledge of Olea’s diagnosis, friends like Arteaga brought him food when he was finally able to eat. Others gave him teddy bears and flowers. While Olea was thankful to feel loved by his friends, these visits left him feeling lonely; he wanted to tell them the truth but did not feel like he could. Those feelings of isolation often led to episodes of high emotion, causing Olea to break down in tears more often than he ever had before.

“I was pretty sad seeing my little brother in such a vulnerable state,” Ivan Olea said. “But I knew that at the end of the day, he was going to get through it. I just had to keep encouraging him. Not just me, but my father and my mother. It was all of our encouragement that helped.”

The Olea family did indeed supply the support their son and brother needed. Ivan came to see Olea, always ready to provide a healthy balance of encouragement and rationality. Olea’s mother spoke with him on FaceTime in his moments of loneliness. It was his father, however, whose daily dedication struck Olea the most.

“He was always there before work Monday through Friday,” Olea said. “And I told him, ‘If you need to go home and sleep before you have to go to work then you don’t need to be here with me all of the time.’ But he insisted on being there all the time, every day.”

That daily support motivated Olea to get well as much as it did comfort him.

“I didn’t want to be seen as someone defeated,” Olea said. “And I knew my dad was going to keep coming every single morning, so I had to keep trying. I wanted him to see that I was trying to get better and get out.”

Olea’s family was not the only source from which he derived sustaining hope. Early into his stay, Olea had become close with Reysa, one of the nurses that worked on his floor. It started with simple acts of kindness from her, like bringing him extra socks or snacks whenever she could. They quickly connected on a personal level, prompting Reysa to try to get assigned to Olea’s room on every shift. Soon, Reysa became the person whose shoulder Olea cried on the most.

“She was just so nice,” Olea recalled. “She just went over the top. I would pull up something on YouTube, and she would ask what I was watching, so we would just watch it together. She would talk to me not just about my situation, but about who I am as a person— about my culture, how my family is, what kinds of food we like, everything. We connected a lot.”

Attempts to contact Reysa for comment were unsuccessful. Olea has not spoken to her since leaving the hospital.

The constant support from Reysa and his family rekindled Olea’s flame of positivity, allowing him to reclaim his optimism before his time in the hospital came to an end.

“Something in me was like, ‘I’ll get through the pain. The pain is only going to be temporary and if I keep crying about it, it’s not going to get any better,’” Olea said. “I just had to work through it, and that’s what I did.”  

On May 6, 2021, Olea was discharged from the hospital, finally able to return home permanently for the first time since March. Though months have now passed since Olea’s last stay in the hospital, he occasionally finds himself feeling as though he is still there.

“Sometimes when I’m laying in bed, I get that smell- it wasn’t a nasty smell, just a hospital smell- I get it in the back of my nose,” he said. “I have no idea where it comes from. It happened a lot in the first few weeks after I came home, too.”

That transition back home was more difficult than Olea had anticipated. According to Ivan Olea, his brother’s adversity did not end after leaving the hospital.

“He was adjusting to the change, his diagnosis, his medication,” he said. “It was a little overwhelming for him.”

While he was glad to be home, Olea found himself combatting significant emotional hurdles that made it difficult to adapt to post-hospital life.

“With everything that had happened in the hospital, I kept having little freak outs because I was trying to process everything,” Olea said. “It was all so crazy.”

Those freak outs quickly turned into full-blown panic attacks. Olea had been diagnosed with anxiety in 2019, but he said testing positive for HIV caused it to skyrocket. He frequently began waking up with overwhelming anxiety in the middle of the night.

“I remember one night, he scared the crap out of me when I was sleeping,” Ivan Olea recalled. “I heard him shouting, ‘Ivan! Ivan!’ and I thought someone was breaking into the house. But he said, ‘Hug me, I’m scared.’ So, I just gave him a hug ‘cause he was having a panic attack. I kept reassuring him saying he was going to be okay and not to worry too much about his diagnosis. It was pretty scary but with a little reassuring, he was able to go back to sleep.”

Olea remembers that night as if it happened yesterday.

“It came out of nowhere,” Olea said. “I woke up and it was happening to me. I kept feeling my pulse and it felt terrifying. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t deal with this.’ And I was trying to do my breathing exercises to calm down because I knew [Ivan] worked in the morning, and I didn’t want to wake him up. But he was the only one there and I didn’t want to freak out my parents, so I went up to him and told him I needed help. And he just hugged me, and we laid in his bed together until I calmed down.”

Experiences like these are why Olea considers his oldest brother to be the biggest support he has. Ivan Olea thinks he is able to help his brother so much because they know each other like the backs of their hands; Olea is sure astrology plays a role because they both have Leo in their star charts.

The transition home was further made difficult because of COVID-19. Olea’s family was concerned about his weakened immune system, resulting in him being given his own silverware and mostly staying in bed while he continued to recover.

“It was a little scary because I was thinking it could affect me badly if I got it again,” Olea said. “I knew there was a possibility of getting it again so I was worried. That’s why my parents wanted me to stay in my room, so I could stay away from everybody.”

Sharing a room with his brother added an extra challenge because Ivan Olea works in healthcare and was being exposed to positive COVID cases at work.

“I had to be extra careful around him,” Ivan Olea said. “I would shower right when I got home and change clothes immediately, that kind of stuff.”

Having to isolate himself left Olea lonelier than ever but in his quiet room, he was finally able to start processing all that had happened— an undertaking he found to be painful. He wasn’t sure if he had trusted the wrong person to have unprotected sex with. He wasn’t sure if he had unknowingly contracted an STI that developed into HIV. He wasn’t sure how people would react if he told them the truth about his diagnosis.

“Sometimes I’d find myself crying at night, wishing it hadn’t happened to me,” Olea said. “I know I’m never going to be living a normal life and I’d just think about that. I just felt like I let myself down, and I may have let my family down with what happened. That’s a fear I have. It was just my own inner saboteur, I guess, telling me, ‘Shame on you, you have this virus. You’re such a disappointment.”

But these hours of darkness did not stop Olea from reclaiming his characteristic light of optimism. He found great comfort in music, which became his main source of hope. According to Olea, the song “Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield is responsible for getting him through that summer.

Lyrics from that song have become Olea’s mantra as he moves forward with his HIV diagnosis. He clings to the chorus’ bold invitation to “Live your life with arms wide open,” knowing that “Today is where [his] book begins, the rest is still unwritten.”

The song’s message to keep living life is not one Olea is unfamiliar with.

“Our grandma would always say that everyone’s going to have their time,” Ivan Olea said. “And she put it this way, where it doesn’t matter how old or how young you are. Healthy, sick, pretty, ugly, it doesn’t matter. There will be times when hardship comes. There’s no point in dwelling over it.”

Empowered by lyrics and equipped with his grandmother’s wisdom, Olea decided to face life head-on when he started taking his HIV medication on June 1, 2021.  He knew it was possible to live happily with his diagnosis after hearing contestants on his favorite show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” speak positively about having HIV.

“Someone on the show mentioned how they just take a pill and that’s the end of that,” Olea said. “This obstacle isn’t going to get in their way of achieving what they want to do. And I just kind of kept that same mentality because I don’t want it to stop me. And I’m not going to let it.”

Adopting that mentality has proven to have been pivotal for Olea. According to both Arteaga and Ivan Olea, his commitment to getting better has reignited a drive in Olea that has allowed him to look past his hardship and start making changes that will help him accomplish his goals.

“That’s what he does,” Arteaga said. “When he sets his mind to something, he finds any possible way to get to it, no matter what. No matter how challenging it is along the way, he gets to the goal.”

“He started taking his medication and that’s when he started improving himself,” Ivan Olea said. “He’s still the same, crazy, ecstatic person he always is, but I feel like he’s a little more motivated now if anything because he realized that everyone’s time is limited and we have to do something for ourselves. Try to live a life. Be someone.”

In the months since starting his medication, Olea’s health has improved tremendously. When he got lab work done in September, his viral load, which is measured in copies, was down to only a few hundred— a dramatic decrease from the millions of copies found when Olea was first diagnosed. Now that he has reached a healthy weight, he only has to see his doctor every few months for a checkup and to get his Biktarvy prescription.

“It’s so much better now,” Olea said. “In March and April, I wanted to give up. But now with everything that’s happened, I feel like there is just so much more for me to do than to just give up. There is so much more than just being diagnosed with the virus.”

“I feel like the stigma is much worse than actually having it,” Olea continued. “I think [people] don’t realize that I can be almost normal. I can be just like somebody else who has a regular immune system. To me, this is just a situation. I just pop my pill every morning, take my vitamin D, and that’s the end of that. It’s just an obstacle, and I can get through obstacles.”

Nine months after his diagnosis, Olea is still– unsurprisingly– positive about his status, often quipping, ‘Yeah, I’m HIV positive!’ when his optimism is addressed.

Wanting to defy the stereotype about those living with HIV, Olea has put effort into exercising so he can be in good physical shape and look as strong as he feels. His pump-up playlist of choice at the gym? Runway music, of course.

With his physical improvement has come a motivation to pursue an education. In August 2021, he enrolled for his first semester of college, the significance of which is twofold, as he is not only moving forward despite his HIV status but is also the first person in his family to attend college.

“There are a bunch of little kids [in my home] like my two little brothers and my cousins that are watching me,” Olea said. “Maybe seeing me do good will make them want to do good. That’s the main reason why I feel like I need to go [to school] because they need to see somebody do good.”

Prior to being hospitalized, Olea was unsure of what he would study in college. But thanks to Reysa, he knows exactly what path he wants to pursue: nursing.

“I feel like if I became a nurse, I could have that kind of impact and connection with patients that I help like she did for me,” Olea said. “So, I would love to be a nurse.”

When he shared this new ambition with Arteaga, she was pleasantly surprised.

“I didn’t even think that that was something he’d want to do but I feel like he’d be so great in that field,” she said. “He just lights up the room. He really picks you up, even when you’re not feeling down…He just has a way with words, and he has a way of making you laugh. He’s just very inspiring.”

Olea said that his “situation” has made him into someone better. Confidence has never been a struggle for Olea but starting school and getting healthier has helped him to feel more empowered, to the point where he feels ready to share his diagnosis with people. Olea, who came out as gay at age 14, feels like sharing his HIV status is his second coming out, though, this time, he is more afraid.

“I feel like with my orientation, everybody knew,” he said. “I think it’s kind of obvious. But there is such a stigma where people seem to think if there is a gay man, he will have HIV eventually because it spreads so easily.”

“Keeping everything to myself from everybody else, I think that’s been the hardest part,” he continued. “But I know at some point, whenever I do tell my friends, they’re not going to judge me for the decisions that I’ve made and what has happened. I know they’re going to be supportive. And if someone finds out and I end up losing them as a friend, I don’t care, honestly. As long as I don’t lose myself.”

Looking back at the day he was diagnosed, Olea sees someone who didn’t know how much potential he had, and he knows exactly what he would say if he could send a message to his past self.

“It’s going to get better, that’s what I would say,” Olea said. “It’s just a diagnosis. This cannot stop you from going forward.”

And go forward he will. Olea plans to spend the current chapter of his life working toward a career in nursing, a certificate in hair styling, and openness about being HIV positive. He hopes the next several chapters are spent pursuing joy through all avenues from performing in drag shows to settling down with a family.

As for the rest of his story, it’s still being written.