As instructed to Aviva Patz
September 18, 2022, is Nationwide HIV/AIDS and Getting older Consciousness Day.
It’s exhausting to consider that HIV might be a blessing, however for me, it was.
That’s as a result of it gave me an opportunity to alter my life.
After having been sexually abused by my uncle and emotionally abused by my father, I ran away from house at 13 solely to be positioned within the foster care system, the place I used to be sexually abused once more. By the point I used to be identified with HIV at age 18 in 1991, I used to be dwelling on the streets of Miami, courting the chief of a violent road gang and committing crimes myself, together with armed theft. I used to be stuffed with anger and self-hatred.
Paradoxically, my HIV analysis got here simply once I was attempting to show my life round. I’d left the gang once I was 17 and moved again in with my mother, although she made it clear that she didn’t need me there as a result of she thought I used to be a troublemaker. Finally, I instructed her I needed to go to Job Corps, a vocational faculty for teenagers in bother. I assumed it was my alternative to show that I used to be worthy.
I wasn’t sick in any respect, however at Job Corps, they did routine blood work on new college students to check for being pregnant and different situations. On TV, you solely noticed homosexual white males from San Francisco with HIV. By no means in my life did I feel I’d be instructed I used to be HIV optimistic.
The physician who identified me had no compassion. He simply blurted out, “You could have AIDS.” It was horrible. He didn’t give me a pamphlet or something. However I didn’t cry. I simply put my head down and thought, I’m by no means going to get married, by no means going to have youngsters. Again then, HIV was a dying sentence.
I come from household, a conservative Catholic household from Colombia. And, the Latinx group is like, “Don’t ask, don’t inform,” so my mother sat me down and mentioned, “We will’t inform anybody within the household or buddies. They’re ignorant. They’ll discriminate.” So I felt I needed to maintain my HIV standing a secret.
On the time, the one remedy obtainable was a most cancers treatment referred to as AZT. They instructed me within the clinic that I might get on AZT, however I must signal a waiver acknowledging that it might injury my inner organs. I mentioned, “Nope, I’m not taking that.”
After years with out remedy, my T cells went all the way down to 39 — the traditional vary is 500 to 1,400 per cubic millimeter of blood. I knew I might proceed dying or start medical remedy.
I selected to stay.
At Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, the place I used to be handled, I began going to instructional courses in particular immunology. I went two hours a day, and I discovered a lot. I used to be very talkative in these courses, and each time I spoke, individuals listened. The directors approached me and requested if I’d wish to be a peer educator. They mentioned, “You helped so many individuals already.”
I acquired skilled by the well being division to counsel minorities — not solely Latinx individuals but in addition the African American and LGBTQ communities and immigrants.
Maria Mejia chatting with members of Congress
I by no means supposed to turn out to be an activist, however that’s the place I landed. As of late, I assist move laws for the HIV group. And I’m a world ambassador, group advisory board member and A Woman Like Me blogger for The Effectively Challenge, a nonprofit group giving info, assist and instruments to girls and women with HIV/AIDS.
I’ve based on-line assist teams with 40,000 members, in English and Spanish. We’ve got individuals from tribes in Africa all the best way to Patagonia in South America. I name myself Maria HIV with “HIV” as my center title. I don’t care — that’s how I entice individuals.
I lead by instance, and I combat stigma by humanizing the situation. I’m a long-term survivor who shouldn’t be solely surviving however thriving. I’m one of the seen faces of HIV on this planet, and I present that folks with HIV can love, get married and have youngsters. I give hope to the hopeless. And, I don’t remorse that I acquired HIV as a result of, mockingly, it saved my life.
It’s helped me develop in so some ways: I’ve discovered to like myself and handle myself and to be extra compassionate and non secular. And, better of all, it’s made my goal clear to me. I’ve met so many individuals who’ve been by way of rather a lot, and collectively we’ve saved so many lives. In serving to others, I’ve discovered I additionally assist myself.