World AIDS Day: Ending the Stigma

In July 2018, I received a phone call from the health clinic that I needed to come in as soon as I possibly could. I had gone in the week before to have my blood drawn to check my eligibility to start PrEP, a medication that can reduce the risk of contracting HIV by 99% when taken as prescribed. I knew what that phone call meant. There was no reason to have me come in sooner than my scheduled appointment if it wasn’t something dire.

Caleb Brown
Caleb Brown

When I went in for my follow-up appointment, the nurse practitioner spoke in gentle tones. He informed me that my cholesterol was dangerously high and that I had a vitamin D deficiency. All good so far. Then he continued, “and you’re HIV positive.”

I had been panicking over receiving this news for two full days, so I was expecting to hear this diagnosis; I wasn’t shocked. Even so, it wasn’t news that I wanted to receive, so I wasn’t relieved. While the thought crossed my mind that at least I didn’t have to worry about contracting HIV anymore, I still didn’t want this. I suppose my body could not keep up with the flood of emotions, so I just went numb. I had no idea what the doctor said in the next few minutes. I just felt my life shifting toward a completely new direction.

After the initial shock wore off and I started my medication, I told my brother how I was really feeling. I was terrified that no one would want to date me. I was afraid I would lose friends. How in the world was I going to even start this conversation with my parents? What if my co-workers found out or my boss? Would my job be in jeopardy?

My brother answered all these concerns rather succinctly: “If they don’t want you because of your HIV status, then they’re the problem and not you.” This simple phrase changed my thinking completely. I wasn’t scared of dying or becoming ill. I was afraid of the stigma. That’s when I had the realization that stigma is based in fear and fear is based in a lack of education.

Being a teacher, I knew I could educate people about HIV. So, I began talking. I talked to friends. I talked to co-workers. I talked to my supervisor. I talked to Uber drivers. I talked to anyone who would listen. Talking about my HIV status helped me realize that I was going to be ok. It also helped that the responses I got were relatively optimistic. I started getting questions about HIV that I could answer. I saw lightbulbs going off and realizations being made. I was doing it. I was teaching people how they could help to end the epidemic. All it took was a conversation. One of these conversations was with a friend of mine who is a nurse. She encouraged me to apply for my master’s in public health so that I could work to help end the epidemic and teach others more about HIV to eliminate the stigma surround the virus.

I began my master’s degree program in March 2019. While completing my coursework, I had an unpleasant encounter with my healthcare provider that helped to narrow my research to the topic of educating healthcare workers on how they could more effectively take care of their patients living with HIV and/or seeking preventative treatments using destigmatized practices. After graduating in May 2021, I was fortunate to get in touch with Dr. Shital M. Patel, assistant professor of medicine – infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. Now I work for the BCM Houston AETC (AIDS Education and Training Center) as a project coordinator and prevention specialist to educate healthcare workers on the best practices to use when treating patients living with HIV as well as building the confidence of these providers to have conversations about sexual health and prescribing PrEP.

When I got my diagnosis, I had no idea of the positive impact it would have on my life. I set out with the goal of helping others feel a little less fear if they ever heard the words “…and you’re HIV positive.” It didn’t feel like an obligation, but more of a calling. This has helped me get to where I am today.

As we mark World AIDS Day today, remember: Undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U). Start talking HIV and HIV prevention. It’s the way we can end the stigma surrounding HIV. It’s the way we can end the epidemic.

-By Caleb Brown, coordinator, business operations, in the Department of Medicine – Section of Infectious Diseases at Baylor College of Medicine for the BCM Houston AETC (AIDS Education and Training Center)

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