As a fourth year medical student, I have had the opportunity to help care for hundreds of patients. While each patient I have met has had their own unique story, my experience during my clerkship at an HIV/AIDS clinic proved to be quite a memorable one. Unfortunately, people with HIV, especially women, are often stamped with stereotypes, the majority of which are completely false. Stereotypes ranging from labels as being promiscuous, drug users, and/or flat out irresponsible are instantly attached to several women as soon as their status is known by others. During one of my encounters, a newly diagnosed patient expressed her fears stating, “I don’t want to look like I have HIV. I don’t want people to be able to tell by looking at me.” Her words shocked me. It was as if she thought that that her status would be broadcasted across her forehead like a scarlet letter. While I cannot pretend to understand her fears or even begin to put myself in her shoes, I feel that her worries and concerns may have come from society’s stigma and ignorance of the disease itself.
A simple glance at the women that I met, and you would never be able to tell that a virus was attacking their immune system. Several women came into the clinic well-dressed, with stylish hair, and their nails nicely manicured. As they shared their life updates, it was quick to see that most were living normal, fulfilled lives. Some were married, some had children, and some were happily single, but all were beautiful women inside and out. Most patients came in with smiles on their faces, telling hilarious stories about what was going on in their personal lives. Patients who had been coming to the office for years, presented themselves with grace, never giving off an ounce of shame of their diagnoses. Although most newly diagnosed patients expressed fear, humiliation, and doubt, I could see the potential for transformation with the help of support from other women who were on the same, yet unique, journey and path. Seeing these strong women and hearing their journeys pushed me, as medical student, and put so much into perspective. They walked in with their heads held high, shoulders pushed back, and with confidence. If these women were capable of not letting a pesky, little virus steal their joy and take over their lives, surely I too could face any stressors in my own life and keep working towards my goals.
While great progress has been made since the 1980s regarding the stigma of HIV/AIDS, I hope that our communities continue to break those stereotypes and dispel myths about women with HIV/AIDS. Times have changed and with the advancement of medicine, millions of people diagnosed with HIV go on to live healthy, normal lives. The survival rate for HIV-positive Americans has dramatically improved since the first days of the HIV pandemic. In fact, with proper healthcare and treatment, the average lifespan of those with HIV is within a five year difference compared to those who are HIV-negative. As science and research continue to make advances, I am hopeful that advances in support will be made as well. Ultimately, the goal is for women to not be afraid to engage in open and honest dialogue, in an effort to promote education, and to continue to move forward… together.