As informed to Aviva Patz
September 18, 2022, is National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day.
It’s laborious to consider that HIV could possibly 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 time 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.
Ironically, my HIV analysis got here simply after I was attempting to show my life round. I’d left the gang after I was 17 and moved again in with my mother, despite the fact that she made it clear that she didn’t need me there as a result of she thought I used to be a troublemaker. Eventually, I informed her I needed 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 circumstances. On TV, you solely noticed homosexual white males from San Francisco with HIV. Never in my life did I feel I might be informed I used to be HIV optimistic.
The physician who identified me had no compassion. He simply blurted out, “You have AIDS.” It was horrible. He didn’t give me a pamphlet or something. But 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. Back then, HIV was a demise sentence.
I come from an excellent household, a conservative Catholic household from Colombia. And, the Latinx group is like, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” so my mother sat me down and stated, “We can’t tell anyone in the family or friends. They’re ignorant. They’ll discriminate.” So I felt I needed to preserve my HIV standing a secret.
At the time, the one remedy out there was a most cancers medicine known as AZT. They informed me within the clinic that I may get on AZT, however I must signal a waiver acknowledging that it may harm my inside organs. I stated, “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 may proceed dying or start medical remedy.
I selected to dwell.
At Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, the place I used to be handled, I began going to academic 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, folks listened. The directors approached me and requested if I’d prefer to be a peer educator. They stated, “You helped so many people already.”
I obtained skilled by the well being division to counsel minorities — not solely Latinx folks but additionally the African American and LGBTQ communities and immigrants.
Maria Mejia talking to members of Congress
I by no means supposed to turn into an activist, however that’s the place I landed. These days, I assist cross laws for the HIV group. And I’m a world ambassador, group advisory board member and A Girl Like Me blogger for The Well Project, a nonprofit group giving info, assist and instruments to girls and ladies with HIV/AIDS.
I’ve based on-line assist teams with 40,000 members, in English and Spanish. We have folks 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 entice folks.
I lead by instance, and I battle stigma by humanizing the situation. I’m a long-term survivor who will not be solely surviving however thriving. I’m some of the seen faces of HIV on the planet, and I present that folks with HIV can love, get married and have kids. I give hope to the hopeless. And, I don’t remorse that I obtained HIV as a result of, sarcastically, it saved my life.
It’s helped me develop in so some ways: I’ve discovered to like myself and care for myself and to be extra compassionate and non secular. And, better of all, it’s made my objective clear to me. I’ve met so many individuals who've been by quite a bit, and collectively we’ve saved so many lives. In serving to others, I’ve discovered I additionally assist myself.