Battling with HIV: A young woman’s story

For most of us, it normally takes an experience or an individual’s testimony to make one believe that indeed a particular issue is real and can happen to anyone. Across the globe, this compelling personal story of Marvelyn Brown’s true life battle with HIV/AIDS has touched people’s lives and spread awareness that makes this pandemic a reality for all of us.
Mervelyn Brown tells her true life story recently in Kigali. (Photo / F. Goodman)
Mervelyn Brown tells her true life story recently in Kigali. (Photo / F. Goodman)

For most of us, it normally takes an experience or an individual’s testimony to make one believe that indeed a particular issue is real and can happen to anyone.

Across the globe, this compelling personal story of Marvelyn Brown’s true life battle with HIV/AIDS has touched people’s lives and spread awareness that makes this pandemic a reality for all of us.

It is a well known fact that during teenage, young people are already dreaming big....

Amongst many, it is that time when some dreams are actualised...when visions of great careers unfurl, but for 25 year-old Brown, this was the time she learnt about her status – she is HIV positive.

Prior to her infection, the US based youngster, had never considered herself as part of the disease high risk group until she discovered three-weeks after infection, that indeed, HIV is non-discriminative.

“I didn’t feel like it affected me, I had seen pictures of infected people and they were gay, drug addicts and some were from Africa. I didn’t feel like it could affect me,” Brown says.

At eighteen, she was in college, having fun and doing all things that young teenagers do, then an impulsive moment fuelled by her passion for the love of her life she engaged in unprotected sex.

According to her, the result alienated her from her family and community; she had become an HIV victim.

“I called five people closest to me to share the news, and they in turn told everyone else, the last person to call was my mum, she told me that I shouldn’t tell anyone else that I had HIV that instead I should tell them I had cancer but it was too late then as I had already shared the news,” she narrates.

After revealing her status, Brown says she came face to face with stigma and rejection; her friends deserted her and her family kept at bay to avoid infection.

“In church they told me I was being punished by God for fornicating. At home, my parents told me to start washing my own clothes and served me on disposable plates and silverware. At school no one would even take an assignment with me,” Brown explains.

She adds that at that point she just wanted to die and was determined to take her obituary photo which she did.

“I had seen pictures of infected people with wounds all over their faces, I didn’t want my family to remember me like that, or as a face of the Virus and so I went and took the photo that would be used for my obituary,” she says.

A car accident was the turning point for Brown. She says she came close to death and this made her realise she wanted more from life. 

Four months after her diagnosis, she walked into a room and for the first time shared her story. It was at a forum aimed at curbing HIV transmission levels.

In two months’ time, she met a friend from school whose ignorance of the disease as well as her own prior lack of knowledge propelled Brown to start what would become her lifetime journey-activism about the reality of HIV, a disease she initially knew nothing about.

She decided to use her situation positively as a means of saving thousands of lives from this deadly epidemic that still has no cure.

Despite the entire stigma surrounding her HIV/AIDS status, Brown took a firm step to quit living her life for everyone else but to live it for her.

Over the past seven years, she has tirelessly travelled across the world telling of her compelling personal story, revealing her intimate journey of living with HIV/AIDS.

She has learnt to use her voice to create awareness, educate and empower others from making the same mistakes as she did, as well as encouraging people to live positively when faced with similar diagnosis.

She has moved both live and television audiences around the United States.

“I discovered I had the power to tell people about HIV. Even though no one had done the same with me, I knew that if I had someone come tell me about HIV, who looked like me and I could relate it - this would have made a difference,” Brown notes.

Today, the young native of Tennessee, USA is the Chief Executive Officer and an Independent HIV Consultant for Marvellous Connections.

Her main message to all people across the globe comes in three phrases.

Get Tested, Get Educated, and Be Responsible

“I go to people with the message of getting tested, educating themselves about the disease and to love themselves enough to be responsible.”

Relating to her experience, the activist notes that it is imperative to get tested because early detection is very important in dealing with the infection.

According to her, HIV weakens the immune system but once detected early, one will start taking medication at the right time. She also added that it helps one not to infect others.

To get educated is also critical, Brown notes.
Citing people who still do not believe the disease exists around them or even ways through which they could contract it, she notes that stopping its spread will remain a dream unless the awareness campaign is effected.

“People also need to love their bodies enough to want to protect them. I know the person who infected me.

He asked me to forgive him and I have, whether he knew about his status or not at the time, I can’t blame him for the virus because I should have been more careful,” she asserts.

Standing now, a beautiful young woman of 25, Brown says that the Virus will stop with her and that she will continue to preach about the disease until people stop stigmatizing those infected as no one is immune.

Brown intends to keep her virus with her maintaining that she will not spread it to anyone else but rather continue to campaign against stigma which challenges the fight against HIV.

“I feel like the Virus lives with me, and I am going to take control and responsibility to ensure that it ends with me. I will be responsible with my body by taking all my medicines. Yes, I hate their side effects but if I keep taking them, seven pills a day, I will get better and I will stay and keep healthy.”

Despite her status, Brown explains that her life is long way from over and, yes, when the day comes she will marry and have children.

“People should share with their partners about their status, and all should work together to break down the stigma.

It has been done with breast cancer. We can do the same with HIV if only people educate themselves about it.

“One thing that helps me tell people about this disease is that I don’t care about what they say about me, and what they say about what I am doing, I face stigma I don’t let it affect me.”

Brown’s inspiration is also sourced from knowledge that there exists people like her prior to the disease who are uneducated, who are unaware of the disease and its effects.

“HIV is a real human disease. It affects us all. I don’t know whether or not a vaccine or cure will come. I don’t think about that. I however believe we as people are going to have to be the cure and vaccine.”

“This disease is preventable and we don’t have to acquire it if it ends with those infected. Then we can work together in educating ourselves and preventing contraction thus ending it,” Brown says.

“Abstinence is the only 100 percent way of not contracting this disease. I talk to people who are having sex and continue to do so, and so instead of being unpractical and telling them not to have sex I tell them of ways that they can protect themselves if they are.”

In her parting shot Brown says that she envisions many other people and organisations joining in the fight because there are so many parts of it and its success lies in everyone’s dedication to play their part.

“During my talks, people come up to me and say that they admire my strength, but I tell them that strength is not a talent.

That it’s in all of us, and they too could do what I do and more if only they could tap into their own strength,” Brown remarks.

Her humanitarian work has so far, earned her a 2007 Emmy Award for Outstanding National Public Service Announcement. She is also the author of a book, The Naked Truth: Young, Beautiful and HIV Positive.

Brown has also got an extensive radio and television experience having featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show discussing HIV/AIDS in America and the rising infection rate among women, America’s Next Top Model, MTV, BET and The CBS Early Show.

Other programmes on which she has featured also include, Newsweek, U.S. News and Report, Fortune 500, Ebony, Black Beat and Essence among many.

With high numbers of infected people all over the world especially in sub-Saharan Africa, more efforts are still needed to curb transmission.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Health, over 150,000 adults and children are currently living with HIV/AIDS.

Global statistics from the UNAIDS show that about 2.7 million people get infected with the virus annually – the more reason to stick to the available prevention measures of faithfulness, use of condoms and abstinence, among others.