My name is Maralyn Gill, I am 57 years old, mother of 3, grandmother of 8 and a widow. I was diagnosed HIV positive in 2004 in the small Central American country of Belize. We moved to Belize in 1991, my husband was from there and in 1996 we opened our restaurant and it was quite a success.
We were married for 18 years in what i thought was a monogamous marriage, or so I thought, until 2001 when my husband turned fifty and went flipsy and left me for a young Honduran girl. Later that year in 2001 just after 9/11, we lost everything in a category 5 hurricane and 2 weeks after that my husband was found dead in Belize City.
I reopened my restaurant on a small island there but started getting ill with flu like symptoms and night sweats. After much antibiotics and then told it was probably just menopause for the following 3 years. In 2004 I was diagnosed with Hepatitis A while on vacation in Miami and hospitalized for 10 days and was given an array of tests including an HIV test but upon release I was told to rest when I got home and I assumed all tests came back negative no problem. When we got back to Belize I still was not doing well and went to a specialist in internal medicine. After another array of tests he called me into his office and sat me down. The good news he said was that I didn't have cancer but the bad news after checking it twice was that I had tested positive with HIV. I was devastated and questioned how did and when did I catch it. This could not be happening to me. There was no counselor to talk to and was directed to go to the only HIV specialist that had a office at the socialized hospital or go to his private office but everyone knew what he specialized in and get the only meds available at a clinic in Belize City and again everyone knew why u were going there. there was no confidentiality and word travels fast. the first thing i had to do was call a family meeting and share the news. First denial set in and after receiving a phone call from the hospital in Miami asking me to fly back up because they had test results they needed to see me in person to share with me, I thanked them and told them I already knew. That meant 3 tests came back positive and we sat there shocked, confused and scared. I had lost a friend to Aids in the early 80's and watching him waste away in pain till death this was something I couldn't put my family thru. I had no idea of the stigma i was about to encounter.
My son had just had his first child and when he shared this news with his Belizean wife with the quickness she told him i could not be in the same room with the baby. My son asked the doctor to explain that I could not infect anyone that easily. I then contacted the men I had been intimate with and thank god no one caught it from me. As word spread I went into a deep depression and never walked into the kitchen of my restaurant again. The restaurant next to mine actually built a metal fence between the two restaurants. I tried the meds that were available and all the meds available were all no longer used in America and I got so sick from the meds that I decided I'd rather die. Tried to get as much info over the net but hopelessness took over and started a horrible cocaine and alcohol habit and stayed in my room for four years trying to die. There was nothing my family could do and my daughter dropped out of college to run the restaurant for me. She did everything possible to try to help me but realized she just couldn't watch me dying and she moved to Portland Oregon. I continued on my self destruction and by the end of February 2008 the doctors in Belize told me there was nothing more they could do for me.
By March 3rd I was on a plane to Portland Oregon. After arriving my daughter immediately checked me in to OHSU a teaching university hospital where I was met by caring folks with so much compassion. I weighed 127 pounds, I'm 5'8" and diagnosed with full blown AIDS and opportune infections including a yeast infection thru my esophagus and rest of my body, PTSD and heavy depression plus my addictions. I started on meds and saw the psychiatrist. The shrink walked in the door and his first statement was "so u got AIDS from intravenous drug use "and my reply was"No I got it from my dead husband's penis" I had no idea how much stigma I was now going to have to deal with. I then went to Cascade Aids Project for an intake appointment and again treated with much compassion and the resources available for me and support amazing. I was told about a woman's group called the Women of Wisdom. I met other women of all ages and we all had one thing in common. Our disease. With the support of these women I never went to rehab and am free of cocaine for 5 years now.
I lost my restaurant in Belize and have not returned to Belize. it is now the number 1 country in Central America with HIV per populous and will continue to be because they will not use condoms (its not manly) and men have wife, girlfriends and sweethearts and then some of the men are in the closet and then the women have their guys also. It's a mess. I have been very active in my community to now give back from all that I received thru this wonderful community that has welcomed me with open arms. I have done some peer mentoring, participated in all the aids walks and was on the billboards campaign for the 2011 Aids Walk and do speaking engagements about the plight of women that are infected. First of all we all knew this as a gay mans disease and the meds have not specifically tested women so a 280 pound man takes the same meds as a 135 pound woman and we won't even talk about the side effects. The hormonal and emotional reality for women who still take care of the children and don't have time to be exhausted. I led a round table discussion at the national minority aids conference in 2010 about women and aging with HIV which we still don't have enough testing or information on. It's all the unknown that is so frustrating. I will continue to speak out to the older women who believe that are recent widows and new divorcees that have not been in the dating world and know that the main worry was getting pregnant or a curable STD. No there is HIV out there and u can't smell it and its not visable. The other problem I find these days is the attitude of its no big deal u just take some pills and u can live forever you won't die from it. What about the fact that I lost 70 percent of one of my kidneys due to a bad reaction from Atripila and a full knee replacement due to a disease that caused my bones to die in my knee and is now in the other knee. HIV is still a disease with no cure. Hopefully in my lifetime we will go to Zero and in my prayers I hope to go back to Belize to share everything I have learned up here in Portland and see the change from people dying from Aids in Belize to living with a chronic disease. I will continue my activism in my community anxious to give back in thanks for giving me life again. special thanks to cascade aids project and women of wisdom. Without support the process would be unbearable. As a Positive widowed Woman my social life is lonely and don't know what lies ahead but will continue my work as a Positive Woman sharing my story to help others following in my footprints and to help prevent future infections.
After all the words of encouragement and understanding I thought if I put this out there it can happen. From the time I realized I was living not dying I involved myself in the HIV community with the idea that my fellow belizeans need these programs these tools so they can Live with the virus with dignity. I need an airplane ticket so I can get the ball rolling. I have been in a peer mentor program that I know I could teach and programs to help stop the stigma that goes along with HIV and share my story. You can also contact me direct at firstname.lastname@example.org