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HIV and Baby Makes Three Busts Pregnancy Myths With True Life Stories

November 15, 2013

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Heather Boerner

Heather Boerner

Health writer Heather Boerner now knows that a couple that includes one HIV-positive partner can successfully conceive an HIV-negative baby and keep the negative partner HIV free -- even if the couple has unprotected sex. However, like many others who may not have been following the news on HIV treatment as prevention, just a few years ago she believed not using a condom during sex with an HIV-positive partner meant you'd get HIV, period.

After meeting a serodiscordant couple who had an HIV-negative child via condomless sex and effective HIV treatment and care, she knew this was a story that needed to be told to people outside the HIV community.

Now, Boerner wants to create an interactive Kindle Single to share this and other stories and facts with a wider audience, so that others can learn from these couples' modern version of "having it all": a loving spouse, a healthy baby and HIV.

How did you come to be a health journalist, and to write this story?

I wrote this story a little while ago, so I just reread it. I just feel like, "Oh, I love this story." It's probably my favorite thing I've ever written.

I had been a newspaper reporter for seven years already at that point. I'd been on newspapers since I was in high school. I'm one of those rare people who knew what they wanted to do when they were 15. I had covered all sorts of things. Then I decided I was tired of working at newspapers, and I wanted to do longer form stories.

I'd never really done a lot of health journalism before. What happened is kind of a combination of circumstance and my own personal experience -- which is that I was something like 29, and I realized I really needed to get a hold of my own health.


I stopped eating sugar. I lost a bunch of weight. I really started putting my health first, and it made me interested in health as a journalist. I became interested in my own health, and in the health of other people and what it means to take care of yourself.

I wrote for Planned Parenthood's website. I wrote a lot about sexual health. I mostly write about chronic illnesses. I'd written a lot about lupus, hemophilia, diabetes and multiple sclerosis. That's actually how I came across this whole issue. It was through writing about hemophilia. I'd written for a hemophilia magazine called HemAware; it's the magazine of the National Hemophilia Foundation. They assigned me a story on HIV discordant couples and parenthood -- because, as you probably know, a lot of guys living with hemophilia contracted HIV in the 1980s when there were tainted blood products, before they were able to figure out how to screen the blood for HIV -- before they even knew that HIV was out there.

So I came across all these couples, and they talked about the variety of ways that you can become a parent. I talked to a couple that adopted; I talked to a couple that did IVF (in vitro fertilization) and ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), which is the safest possible way: You wash the sperm. You inject the single sperm into a single egg. It's extremely high-tech. And they were able to have a baby.

"I understood as a health writer that HIV had changed, that there were effective treatments now. But I think in the popular consciousness -- and my consciousness -- unprotected sex was a death sentence. You know: Always use a condom. ... That's the public health message that we all get. So when they told me this, I was completely stunned, and excited."

And then I talked to this couple, the Hartmanns, and they told me that they had unprotected sex. I'm a child of the '80s, and my understanding of HIV didn't advance a whole lot past that. I mean, I understood as a health writer that HIV had changed, that there were effective treatments now.

But I think in the popular consciousness -- and my consciousness -- unprotected sex was a death sentence. You know: Always use a condom. Always use a condom. That's the public health message that we all get.

So when they told me this, I was completely stunned, and excited. It really caught my imagination, and so I wrote that article. This was, I don't know, like four or five years ago now. And I stayed in touch with the Hartmanns. I kept wanting to go back and write the story about: How is it possible to have unprotected sex? I would tell people about this; I would say, "Did you know this was possible?" And people would stare at me with their mouths open. I realized I really wanted to do the story.

That's how I ended up talking to other researchers, talking to doctors, finding other couples. And that's how I ended up doing this story.

I think that there are a lot of myths out there around pregnancy and HIV.

Absolutely. What was interesting in writing this story is, I talked to these couples. In the story, I follow two couples, basically, from the moment they fall in love to their first children. And first of all, what struck me: In this particular story, the person with HIV is the man in these heterosexual couples. Dan Hartmann told me, "I never thought I would have a child." He was diagnosed when he was 12. At the time, no one expected anyone with HIV to live very long. So, to be in this world, and be able to have a child, and then talk to these women who are HIV negative -- they're going to their doctors and their doctors know nothing about HIV. They know about pregnancy, but they don't know about pregnancy for people with HIV.

What I found was that doctor after doctor refused to talk to them about it -- or there wasn't enough information, because the research just hadn't been completed yet. That was one of the compelling things to me about this: There was a disconnect between the research that was being done and the information that was available for couples.

There often seems to be a sluggish uptake for primary care doctors -- or even specialist physicians like obstetrician/gynecologists -- to absorb some of the research that's out there.

Absolutely. I think it's really a sign of how HIV has changed that now we need to talk about it; now, OB/GYNs really need to know about HIV to help their HIV-negative patients who are with HIV-positive people. And the whole pregnancy counseling thing that happens in the normal course of a heterosexual woman's doctor's appointment is interrupted by this. Because doctors just have limited knowledge; they just don't know.

What they know is the public health message, which is, "Don't have sex without a condom."

HIV and Baby Makes Three

Can you tell us a little bit about the two couples that you interviewed for HIV and Baby Makes Three? Can you tell us how you came to meet the two couples, and how old their children are now?

Sure. The first couple is the Hartmanns, as I mentioned. I came across them in writing this previous article that I did about HIV-discordant couples and parenthood. They're just this amazing couple. They had lived in the Bay Area; they now have moved to the Washington, D.C., area. I believe Dan is a graphic designer.

They just had this story that's a very rare story -- which is that they met in high school. Susan was in the audience when Dan got up in front of his entire high school and told them that he had HIV. They had an assembly around it.

They didn't date in high school, but then they reconnected in their 20s. They were living across the country from each other, and they reconnected and they fell in love. She got pregnant in 2009. I believe she had Ryan in 2009, and they're doing really well, really healthy. They just seem like a really happy couple, and a happy family.

The other couple that I interviewed, I call them in the story Poppy and Ted Morgan. Those are actually pseudonyms. Because of the stigma around HIV, Ted isn't out to everyone about having HIV. So he asked that we use a pseudonym.

They are an interesting couple. In some ways, I feel like they're a little bit more representative of both the struggles that couples face in having a child, and of what people think about HIV. Poppy grew up in this family in the suburbs of Chicago where she described it as being very sheltered. When her parents found out that she was dating someone with HIV, they were extremely unpleased. And when she married him, they didn't talk to her for five years.

She's had to deal with a lot of stigma. But they also have this story that's sort of remarkable, where Poppy moved to San Francisco in 1999 -- they live in San Francisco, still. And she worked at a school. She showed up at the school the first day, and who opens the door, but Ted. He holds out his hand to shake her hand and says, "Hi, I'm Ted. Welcome." She said she looked into his eyes, and she thought, "Oh, my God, this is the guy. This is my guy."

This was not necessarily a welcome thought. She was in a relationship already. It was her second day in San Francisco. And she worked with him. So she was like, "I don’t know. This might not be a great idea."

So they didn't date right away, because she was in a relationship. But a year and a half later, they started dating. Poppy's also, I think, typical of a lot of women -- not all women, of course. Women vary just like men vary. But she always wanted to have a child. You know, you ask some people and they just think, "Eh, maybe I'll have a child and maybe I won't." But she always wanted to have a child.

She told me this story about how she would put the cutlery away when she was growing up. She would put the forks and spoons and knives away in the drawer, and she would pretend they were babies that she was putting to bed. So she always wanted to have a child.

So she met Ted and she started imagining a baby with pink cheeks like Ted's. They started dating, and they dealt with this kind of stigma. There's something that happens when you're afraid -- and I'm not talking about Ted specifically here. I'm just talking in general, when people are worried about how other people will perceive them when they're keeping something to themselves. And we know as queer people that if you keep that to yourself, it becomes a secret and it becomes this painful spot in your life. That's sort of what happened for him.

So then they go through the process of trying to get pregnant. And it's a long journey for them. They met in 1999, and Poppy got pregnant in 2012. They had their daughter (who I call in the story Pom-Pom, because that's her actual nickname: Pom-Pom and Poppy) -- they had Pom-Pom in April of this year. She's adorable, and she looks like her dad. After Poppy wanting a baby that looks like her husband for all these years, she looks like her dad, and has strawberry blond hair and his big toes, his stunning toes.

The day that Pom-Pom was born, Ted apparently picked her up and said, "Oh, man, I'm sorry. You're going to put holes in all of your shoes." You know, with these toes, because he has the same toes.

That's where they're at now. And they're still living happily in San Francisco.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
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