Martinez describes living with HIV/AIDS

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Since it was first discovered in the early 1980s, AIDS has claimed millions of lives. Millions more are living with the virus, and some are not even aware that they are infected.

Nina Martinez, who is a member of Hope’s Voices-a group dedicated to helping raise awareness about HIV/AIDS-came to Saint Louis University last Thursday night to speak about her life as a woman with HIV/AIDS. Martinez was infected with the HIV virus through a blood transfusion as a baby in 1983.

Martinez began her speech by giving the medical definition of HIV/AIDS. She explained that AIDS itself does not kill; the cause of death is often an opportunistic infection.

Martinez and her twin sister were born in San Jose, Calif., 12 weeks early. Martinez was very weak, and she was transferred to an Army hospital in San Francisco, where she received a blood transfusion from a local blood bank that was HIV positive. At the time, there was not a test to see if blood carried the virus. After the transfusion and several surgeries, Martinez was released. Martinez had a normal childhood and had no idea that she was HIV positive. As a kid, she would watch public service announcements about the importance of being tested for HIV/AIDS and wearing a condom.

“I always would laugh at those,” she said. “I always would say, ‘That wouldn’t happen to me, I’d be safe.’ This was at the time I didn’t know I had the virus.”

This would all change on Dec. 4, 1991.

“I had to have surgery because I had cross eyes,” she said. “They [the doctors] were running all these tests, and I was accidentally tested for HIV. This was not supposed to happen. After my surgery, the doctor called my parents into his office. My dad wasn’t too happy to interrupt his day. He complained, ‘Why do I have to be here?’ The doctor said, ‘You should probably sit down.’ My parents were shocked.”

At the time of this surgery and Martinez’s diagnosis, the Army had known about that she had been exposed to HIV since the late 1980s. They had sent a letter to where the family had lived in Hawaii shortly after leaving San Jose. Martinez never got the letter.

In January 1992, Martinez was taken to Washington, D.C., to learn about HIV. She was 8 years old, and the doctor asked her if she knew what HIV was.

“What kind of doctor asks an 8-and-a-half-year-old that?” she said with a laugh. Martinez learned that she would have to take medication four times a day. When she returned to school and tried to make friends, she began by saying that she was related to “Magic” Johnson because she was HIV positive.

“This got me into some trouble,” she said, “because kids would go home and tell their parents that. There was a meeting held by the school about me. See, at the time, the principal was on sabbatical, and he didn’t think that kids like me should be educated. According to his reasoning, they were all going to die anyway.”

After high school, Martinez attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. While there, she came up against an administration that didn’t understand what she needed to succeed.

“I had to have seven biopsies for cervical cancer my sophomore year,” she said. “I had to have a doctor’s note to excuse me from classes. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I had a voice message from my doctor saying that I shouldn’t worry about it, and I took that to my dean. They listened to it and wouldn’t give me the time I need.”

This caused problems when Martinez caught a cold, which progressed to pneumonia. When she went to the dean again, she was denied time to recover. Finally, she had to take time off and returned to New Mexico. This caused her family to begin to talk about HIV/AIDS and began to bring them closer.

Martinez graduated from Georgetown University and is currently attending graduate school at Emory University.

Martinez had a short question and answer session afterward.

“Her frankness was great,” Lara Brandstetter, a freshman, said, “Her willingness to tell her story really causes me to look at the HIV/AIDS issue in a whole different way. She was willing to laugh at herself at times.”