As instructed to Aviva Patz
September 18, 2022, is Nationwide HIV/AIDS and Getting older Consciousness Day.
It’s laborious 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 dwelling 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 recognized with HIV at age 18 in 1991, I used to be residing on the streets of Miami, relationship 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.
Sarcastically, my HIV analysis got here simply once I was making an attempt 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. Ultimately, I instructed her I wished to go to Job Corps, a vocational faculty for teenagers in bother. I believed 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 believe I might be instructed I used to be HIV optimistic.
The physician who recognized me had no compassion. He simply blurted out, “You may 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 kids. Again then, HIV was a demise sentence.
I come from an excellent household, a conservative Catholic household from Colombia. And, the Latinx neighborhood is like, “Don’t ask, don’t inform,” so my mother sat me down and mentioned, “We are able to’t inform anybody within the household or pals. They’re ignorant. They’ll discriminate.” So I felt I needed to maintain my HIV standing a secret.
On the time, the one remedy accessible was a most cancers treatment known as AZT. They instructed me within the clinic that I may get on AZT, however I must signal a waiver acknowledging that it may harm my inner organs. I mentioned, “Nope, I’m not taking that.”
After years with out remedy, my T cells went right down to 39 — the traditional vary is 500 to 1,400 per cubic millimeter of blood. I knew I may proceed dying or start medical remedy.
I selected to reside.
At Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, the place I used to be handled, I began going to academic lessons in particular immunology. I went two hours a day, and I realized a lot. I used to be very talkative in these lessons, and each time I spoke, individuals listened. The directors approached me and requested if I’d prefer 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 into an activist, however that’s the place I landed. As of late, I assist move laws for the HIV neighborhood. And I’m a world ambassador, neighborhood advisory board member and A Lady Like Me blogger for The Effectively Undertaking, a nonprofit group giving data, 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. Now we have individuals from tribes in Africa all the way in which to Patagonia in South America. I name myself Maria HIV with “HIV” as my center title. I don’t care — that’s how I appeal to individuals.
I lead by instance, and I combat stigma by humanizing the situation. I’m a long-term survivor who will not be solely surviving however thriving. I’m one of the seen faces of HIV on this planet, and I present that individuals with HIV can love, get married and have kids. 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 realized to like myself and care for myself and to be extra compassionate and religious. And, better of all, it’s made my objective clear to me. I’ve met so many individuals who’ve been via so much, and collectively we’ve saved so many lives. In serving to others, I’ve discovered I additionally assist myself.