Rhaynetta Cheatham, AIDS outreach worker and often-acerbic advocate for victims of AIDS in Miami's black community, died early this past Wednesday morning in the hospice unit of North Shore Hospital. The 40-year-old Cheatham had been diagnosed with HIV eleven years ago and had suffered from full-blown AIDS for about four years. Her husband Joe McDonald succumbed to the disease in February at the same hospital.
"She just got tired," says John Aldrich, a long-time friend who was chief among Cheatham's caretakers during her last months, when she was repeatedly hospitalized for complications that arose from pneumonia and a brain infection. "It was like she resigned herself. She stopped eating. She couldn't even get out of bed on Tuesday, so I had to admit her to the hospice."
Before she became critically ill, resignation had not been one of Cheatham's character traits. "I think she's probably the greatest fighter this side of Muhammad Ali," says her younger brother Phillip Edwards, a minister in Plant City, where he and Cheatham were born and raised, the only two children in a religious, social-activist family. "I am most grateful that in the last ten or so years of her life she was able to turn her tragedy into a triumph. Unfortunately most of the family only got to see and know her when she was on the bottom."
The subject of a New Times cover story, "Rhaynetta's Cause," this past May, Cheatham had become addicted to cocaine while living in Plant City and for several years relied on prostitution and check kiting to support her habit. She came to Miami in 1990, after learning she had contracted HIV. In 1992 she completed a drug rehab program and became involved in the AIDS ministry at Mount Tabor Missionary Baptist Church in Liberty City. She also spoke at high schools and mentored HIV-positive students. She taught addicts how to wash syringes with bleach and shuttled among prostitute haunts on a bicycle, handing out condoms and advice. A compelling speaker and outspoken observer of Miami's AIDS advocacy community, Cheatham had been invited for the past three years to make speeches at World AIDS Day ceremonies here.
"We've both been called the same thing -- outspoken," says Cheatham's aunt, Coconut Grove activist Esther Mae Armbrister. "'I'm gonna say what I'm gonna say' -- she was that way. And all that brain she had. Oh Lord, it's a shame, so much intelligence. I'm sorry she's dead, but I'm glad she's not in pain any more.