Rural Profile: Maria
Maria (not her real name), a young Hispanic mother, was 24 and living in her hometown of Yakima, Washington, when she was first tested for HIV in 1991. Her mother had insisted that she see the family doctor because she was pregnant with her second child and actively using intravenous drugs.
The doctor suggested an HIV test, and Maria gave her permission even though she did not think she was at risk for HIV. "I said no problem," Maria remembers, "Because I was a woman, I knew I wouldn't have that. Back then, everyone thought it was a gay man's disease."
But the test result was positive. Maria found out from public health officials who had to search the streets to find her. Looking back, Maria expresses gratitude that her family doctor reported her test results. "I'm glad they had my name, that they found me. It changed my whole life." After learning she was HIV-positive, Maria tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized. From there, she entered chemical dependency treatment. She has been sober now for nine years.
"For me, AIDS gave me a better life. I've got both my kids in my life and I own my own home. If I had gone to a clinic [and been tested anonymously], I wouldn't have even come back for my results, because I didn't think I was at risk. I still wouldn't know today. If I hadn't found out, I'd be another death statistic."
Now, Maria works with a chemical dependency agency and speaks publicly about her life as a Hispanic woman living with HIV. She recently attended AIDS Watch 2001 in Washington D.C. where there was a lot of discussion about the growing impact of HIV/AIDS among Hispanics. "They kept saying, 'But we're not seeing the numbers.' And I kept telling them, 'That's what you said about women. Are we going to wait until thousands of us die, before we pay attention?'"
Maria was also a panelist at the recent eastern Washington meeting of the Governor's Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS (GACHA), "I was quoted as saying, 'If you get sick in Yakima, you better get sick on Mondays.' That's because we only have a clinic once a week [New Hope Clinic] -- for four hours. If you're sick on any other day, you're at the ER and half the ER people aren't knowledgeable in this disease." She is quick to point out, however, that much of the feedback she and other panelists gave at the GACHA meeting was positive. "Things have gotten so much better. I remember in 1991, the doctor wore a space suit to deliver my baby. They don't do that now."
Maria also praised the local health district employees and volunteer organizations in Yakima, such as POCAAN [People of Color Against AIDS Network] and Care Bearers. "Most people would say, 'Oh you don't have enough women, so we can't support your groups.' There are only 3 to 4 women, but Care Bearers still supports our women's group. Even though the numbers [in the women's support group] are low, at least I know that it's not just me. For a long time I thought it was just me."
Maria believes strongly in the need for HIV-positive people to be visible and to come together in rural communities. "As soon as you find someone else it's so much easier. But you can't find those people if everybody is hiding. You're alone and depressed. In the long run, if money was spent for support and for people to gather around, people would feel better and be healthier."
By speaking out, Maria hopes to increase awareness and funding and to improve health for HIV-positive people in her community. "Because people don't come out and speak, it seems like I'm the only woman here. I know that the high school kids think, 'Oh, she's coming again this year -- she must be the only one.' But we have over 70 [HIV-positive] women [in the Yakima area]."
Maria also hopes that by speaking at high schools and at meetings like GACHA she will be able to inspire another HIV-positive person, hopefully a woman, or a Hispanic, to be able to be public about their status and to share their stories with others. "As long as you have a positive outlook on life, your heath is so much better. I think that's what has kept me going for so long."
This article was provided by Seattle Treatment Education Project. It is a part of the publication STEP Perspective.