The HIV Problem

Erin Roberts

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In 1994, 26-year-old Catherine Wyatt-Morley walked into the doctor’s office for what she assumed would be a normal blood test before hysterectomy surgery. When the doctor can back with the results, however, he stumbled for the right words. “I’m so sorry to tell you this…but you’re HIV positive,” he finally said.

In an interview with The Tennessean, Wyatt-Morley confessed, “You could feel the atmosphere drain itself from all energy. There was no air to breathe in the room.” Wyatt-Morley was an amber-eyed African American woman, a mother of three, worked in a leadership position in a manufacturing job, and was living comfortably in a Brentwood home. One would never expect that she carried HIV, or any disease of such caliber for that matter.

Catherine Wyatt-Morley, despite being told that this disease would only allow her 6 more years of life, goes on to live almost two decades past this death sentence and is not only surviving, but thriving. Wyatt-Morley is the proud founder of Women on Maintaining Education and Nutrition (W.O.M.E.N), a non-profit organization dedicated to helping other women in her situation in the Nashville area. W.O.M.E.N provides food, clothing, shelter, and support to women living with HIV or other burdens, including cancer, domestic violence, or substance abuse. Wyatt-Morley travels around the world, connecting with government organizations and everyday people to act upon the AIDS threat. And, in 2010, she received a $2 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to prevent spread of the disease.

While I was reading the article describing in great detail the trials and tribulations that Wyatt-Morley was forced to endure, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by what this woman was able to do. Few people would have to courage or strength to turn a seemingly hopeless situation, like this one, into a story of triumph. Conversely, however, I couldn’t help but feel disgust as I read about what actually encouraged Wyatt-Morley to begin W.O.M.E.N.

Wyatt-Morley described a conversation she had with her children to try and explain just how serious the disease was. When her son Aaron inquired if HIV was a disease like cancer, she somberly replied that HIV was very different than cancer. When a person gets cancer, people bend over backwards to come and help. They cook you meals and constantly hug you and tell you that things will be okay. When you have HIV, people do not want to hug you. They do not want to touch you at all. HIV completely alienates you.

The connotations that go hand in hand with being an HIV carrier don’t correspond with those of cancer patients, either. For the most part, when you hear that someone has cancer, you are overwhelmed with sympathy and the desire to help. The person with cancer had nothing to do with contracting this horrible disease-they’re just the victims of a horrible bout of bad luck. The opposite is true for HIV patients. Often times, being an HIV carrier associates you with traits that are less desirable, such as promiscuity, homosexuality, or drug abuse. It is practically assumed that the person consciously knew that they would contract the disease. People ostracize you; people grow to be afraid of you. When Catherine Wyatt-Morley reached out for help, it backfired. Her friends abandoned her, her husband separated from her, and even her church left her in her time of need. To society, she was untouchable. She was a discard, a reject.

Sadly, this harsh discrimination towards HIV victims goes way past Catherine Wyatt-Morley and the city of Nashville, Tennessee. In May 2008, Willie Campbell, a 42-year-old HIV positive man from Texas, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for spitting on a police officer that was attempting to arrest him for public intoxication. During his prosecution, the jury finally ruled that Campbell’s act of spitting on a police officer was equivalent to possessing a deadly weapon, despite the fact that HIV cannot be contracted via saliva. 89 similar arrests have been made between 2008 and 2011, which were upheld by the HIV criminalization laws made legal in 34 states. In an interview with The Atlantic, Megan McLemore, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, stated, “The purpose of the laws, put in the most positive way, [are to] encourage you to disclose your HIV status to your sexual partner and punish the intentional transmission of HIV to somebody else.” Despite the lengthy explanation, only one word stuck out in my mind-intentional.

How has it come to pass that we treat the victims of this atrocious disease like common criminals? Wyatt-Morley’s son, Aaron states, “When I was younger, I didn’t realize there was a stigma. As I have gotten older, the stigma is always in the forefront of my mind. I have seen it directed at my mother, when people won’t let her use their toilet or serve her food on paper plates with disposable cups.”

Furthermore, by what claims can we base this ridiculous assumption that by neglecting and ostracizing these member of our society that we are improving the “AIDS problem”?

Kevin Fenton, who heads the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that these HIV criminalization laws create “an environment of assumptions, rather than having an open and honest conversation about HIV status.” He goes on to note that the laws also inhibit HIV status, “which in turn prevents those who are HIV-infected from getting the support they need, being honest about HIV infection, or just having a conversation about HIV risk and preventing others from infection.”

I do applaud, however, the various groups and organizations such as UNAIDS and UNICEF who have taken great measures to put an end to the HIV/AIDS atrocity. Just as well, millions of people constantly donate money and supplies to organizations like these. And while fiscal contributions are indubitably necessary for scientific and medical research on putting an end to this disease, how are we helping these people now? Unless we personally step out and start accepting these HIV victims are valuable members of society instead of cold-shouldering them, we are only making the situation worse.

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3 Comments

3 Responses to “The HIV Problem”

  1. Brian Walsh on February 29th, 2012 8:11 pm

    Catherine is a true Shero, she is also a friend of mine whose courage and honesty I deeply admire. One’s Humanity is far greater than any stigma, and for her she looked deep within to find not only a heart that truly matters, but also a purpose that if at all emulated, will, in time define our moment right now in History.

  2. Pierina Gacheri on March 1st, 2012 2:32 am

    What a marvelous way of piecing together Catherine’s story! I read her 1st book, ..the Journal of a HIV Positive Mother which helped me pick up my pieces after being broken by discovering I carried the virus in me. As I read today, I can’t help weep at how often, how much people bend away when we need them most. Her story helps thousands like me in Kenya, Africa through the journey of life with HIV. Thank you for this write-up.

  3. Erin Roberts on March 8th, 2012 11:13 am

    Wow, thank you so much for taking your time to read this article, it means so much to me. I’m incredibly pleased that it was able to touch someone who truly experiences this first hand.

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