"I thought I had found my perfect gentleman."
That's how Melissa Baker describes the man who gave her HIV.
Melissa was a teen-age wife who had twin daughters prematurely when she was 17, and another daughter when she was 18. She left her husband when she was pregnant with the youngest. After the divorce, she put herself through school to become a medical assistant.
"Dating was not something I knew how to do, so, for the first few years after my divorce, I didn't do much of it," Melissa says. "My girls kept me busy."
Finally, a girlfriend recommended a dating site, and helped her create her profile.
"I met my perfect gentleman pretty soon," Melissa says. "He had a career, some college, military experience, and a picture-perfect house in the suburbs. I fell for him very quickly."
As Melissa says now, looking back, "I didn't choose this, but I chose not to prevent it."
She knew she was HIV-negative, because she did blood donations annually. "Before we were intimate, he said he'd had a physical at work. Of course, that didn't mean he'd been tested for everything."
Two months later, Melissa got flu-like symptoms, but they went away. Later she had a fever, and took an HIV test that came back negative. Six months after that, her new boyfriend came down with MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus), which is rare in healthy young adults. "We took antibiotics, and it went away," Melissa says. "Then we took a trip to Brazil, and when we came back he got MRSA again. I saved his life by making him go to the hospital. He was in a telemetry unit for a week with IV antibiotics. When he got out, he continued taking antibiotics by mouth. But he wouldn't go back to the doctor."
"I called my gynecologist, who said his first MRSA was a little weird, and his second even more so. I took another HIV test, and right around my 28th birthday my doctor told me I was HIV-positive. He said it was only the second time in his career that he'd given that diagnosis to a woman."
"When I told my boyfriend, all he said was, 'Well, I guess I'd better finally go to the doctor, huh?' He had full-blown AIDS, with a T-cell count below 10. I'll never know if he knew. I never got an apology from him, and probably never will."
At first, Melissa told no one. "He scared me into submission," she says. "He told me, 'You will not utter a word of it.' He went back to work and taking on-line college courses like it was nothing."
She left him at the New Year, and began to come out of her shell. "I found out about an organization here in Richmond that does spiritual retreats for people who are HIV-positive," Melissa says. "It was a transforming time for me. It gave me even more strength."
She also came across the Southern AIDS Living Quilt, and decided to let her voice be heard. (See sidebar.) "He's not happy that I've decided not to lie any more when I'm asked about my status, because people know we were together," Melissa says. "But he has to deal with that on his own."
Melissa also recently participated in a project at the local women's prison, teaching about HIV and other STDs, and how to prevent infection.
"I found out that a lot of the reasons women end up in jail are the same reasons people end up putting themselves at risk of HIV infection: lack of self-esteem and self-love," Melissa says. "How can you love someone else if you don't love yourself? How can someone else love you if they don't love themselves? The women in jail benefitted from the project, but I also benefitted myself."
Melissa's advice for people newly diagnosed with HIV?
"Find a great doctor," she said. "Someone who is a good fit. If your first doctor isn't a good fit, find someone who is. Go to your appointments."
"Do some research on your own. Eat. Rest. Sleep. Those can be difficult because you have so much on your mind when you're first diagnosed!"
"Surround yourself with support," she continues. "If the people around you don't support you, then find new people who will."
"I'm an oncology medical receptionist, so I work with cancer patients," Melissa says. "And that helps put this in perspective. One of my patients-who has since passed away-told me, 'You're going to live a long time with this. I wish I had what you have.' It hurt my heart to hear that, but it was the truth. HIV isn't a death sentence any more, as long as you take your meds and take care of yourself. There are worse things out there."
The Southern AIDS Living Quilt
Melissa Baker is one of the contributors to a website called The Southern AIDS Living Quilt, which illustrates the growing impact of HIV on women in the Southern United States. The web address is: LivingQuilt.org
The Living Quilt is made up of "patches," video clips featuring the personal stories of women living with HIV, their families and healthcare providers throughout the region. The stories underscore the critical importance of making HIV screening a routine part of medical care in order to ensure earlier diagnosis and prevent the spread of the disease. The Living Quilt provides links to valuable resources and fact sheets about the epidemic, to empower those directly impacted to make informed healthcare decisions and to help others understand the power of knowing their HIV status.
The Living Quilt is designed to grow organically, with women throughout the South continuing to add their stories to a collective community that becomes more powerful with each new voice. The Quilt recently passed an important milestone, adding its 100th patch. The Living Quilt is a joint project of the Southern AIDS Coalition and Test for Life.
Copyright 2018, Positive Health Publications, Inc.
This magazine is intended to enhance your relationship with your doctor - not replace it! Medical treatments and products should always be discussed with a licensed physician who has experience treating HIV and AIDS!