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Voice of HIV, AIDS dies of pneumonia

Autum Aquino of Bangor, whose early advocacy for AIDS awareness and education brought her national recognition, died unexpectedly Thursday at Eastern Maine Medical Center.

Aquino was exposed to human immunodeficiency virus in her mother’s womb and diagnosed with the infection when she was 2 years old. After the deaths of her parents, she was raised by relatives in Hampden. She was just 23 when she died.

Aquino was well-known in Maine and nationally for her openness in discussing her HIV status, for her ongoing efforts to raise public awareness about HIV and AIDS, especially among teens and young adults, and for her high energy and optimistic nature.

On Friday, Aquino’s sister Ja’Nette Agosto Converse, 26, of Unity said her outgoing younger sister’s death was sudden and unexpected. Aquino had been healthy and active, working in a local retail store and living with her fiance in an apartment in Bangor.

But earlier this week, Converse said, Aquino contracted a bacterial sinus infection that developed into pneumonia despite the antibiotic that was prescribed for her.

Early Thursday morning, Aquino was taken by ambulance to EMMC with a high fever, became unconscious and by Thursday evening had slipped into a coma. Diagnostic tests detected no brain activity; she died at about 9:30 p.m., Converse said.

"We’re completely shell-shocked," Converse said. "But if we had to lose her, I’d rather have her go like this."

The suddenness and severity of her sister’s final illness was related to her weakened immune system, Converse said, but in recent years, Aquino’s day-to-day health had been stable.

"Autum had a normal life," she said. "She needed to take her medication, but she lived life on her own terms. She was an amazing person."

Aquino was born in 1985 to Terry Dannemiller. Dannemiller had been exposed to HIV during her relationship with Aquino’s father, who abused intravenous drugs. Aquino’s father died when she was 4 years old.

Dannemiller was a fierce advocate for victims of the stigmatizing illness, speaking openly about her HIV status and encouraging her young daughters to do the same.

After their mother’s death from AIDS in 1993, Autum and her sister were raised in Hampden by their aunt and uncle Lynn and Brad Woods, who now reside in Dixmont.

Autum attended Hampden schools and graduated from Hampden Academy in 2003. School nurse Barb Parent recalled her as "one of the most positive people I’ve ever seen."

"When she first moved to our district when she was in middle school, we held a public forum [about HIV and AIDS]," Parent said. "She wanted people to know. She didn’t want to hide it. She wanted to be available to answer people’s questions. She was the first student to come out and say, ‘I have HIV.’"

To the community’s credit, Parent said, parents attending that first meeting were compassionate and accepting. They were more worried about the possibility of sickening the medically vulnerable youngster than they were about the unlikely possibility that she might spread HIV to their children.

Aquino’s advocacy continued throughout her tenure at Hampden Academy. She helped establish an HIV awareness group at the school, made presentations at other area schools and spoke at a state conference on HIV sponsored by the Department of Education.

She was also a good student and maintained an active extracurricular schedule, including choir, drama, cheerleading, French club and more.

"She was just incredible," Parent recalled. "She took good care of herself physically, but she also had an amazing attitude. I don’t think I ever saw her without a smile on her face."

Aquino attended several semesters at St. Joseph College in Standish, her sister said Friday, but had recently decided to take a break. She had come back to Bangor to work and was living happily with her fiance, Richard Gamble.

"She had a job she enjoyed. She loved to shop and go dancing and hang out with her friends," Converse said.

Stories in local and national media, including The New York Times and Glamour magazine, kept Aquino in the spotlight. Converse, who herself is HIV-negative, said her sister remained a passionate advocate for HIV education and public awareness throughout her life.

"Her feeling was that the greatest power to control this disease was knowledge," she said. "People needed to know that it could happen to anybody and that there were things you could do to protect yourself and that you needed — and had the right — to do that."

Converse said the family plans a private memorial service.

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