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EPISODE #203 - Pregnancy & HIV

#203

Nothing is Impossible: The Truth About Being Pregnant While HIV-Positive

December 26, 2023. 46:38

We said what we said: Nothing is impossible! This week our guests Martha Cameron and Robin Thomas talk about their experiences with pregnancy while HIV-positive. Two different stories with one common truth: You can have a healthy life and a healthy baby with a positive status. Listen to learn how and why, and stick around for deeper discussions on the impact of stigma and how research is making it easier for pregnant people to advocate for themselves every day.

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This program contains language and subject matter that some audiences may find triggering or sensitive. Our purpose is to encourage engagement in care and treatment; however, please consider your well-being before continuing.

Transcript

Martha Cameron: My OB-GYN told me I had no right having children as an HIV-positive woman.
Malachi Stewart: Hello to everyone in the DMV and Beyond. Welcome to another episode of Positive Voices. I'm your co-host, Malachi Stewart.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hey, and I'm Tei Pearson-Hall.
Malachi Stewart: Hey, Tei. You're looking good today.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Oh, so do you baby.
Malachi Stewart: Thank you, baby. Listen, so today we are going to talk about pregnancy. As a person who's worked in HIV for a while, a lot of the time don't... People sometimes get so caught up in the virus, they figured about the people. We out here living regular lives, people having babies. As much as I have announced on social media, I actually cannot get pregnant.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: What?
Malachi Stewart: So, I definitely want to give space to our guests. Please introduce yourselves so we can get into your stories.
Martha Cameron: My name is Martha Cameron.
Robin Thomas: My name is Robin Thomas.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hello, Ms. Martha. Hello, Ms. Robin. Thank you for joining us today.
Malachi Stewart: Welcome. Welcome-
Robin Thomas: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: ... to the couch.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: I'll start with you. What can you tell us about yourself?
Robin Thomas: I'm a community health educator working in the field of HIV, and I've been doing it for 13 years now. Not the job I would've chosen. Testing HIV positive was definitely challenging, and you have to be very, very strong to survive that. You know what I mean? Mentally strong, not just physically, but mentally because it really will challenge you to the core. But I tested positive when I was pregnant with my baby girl. She is 27 now, so it's been quite a few years now and such a crazy time because I was in a fourteen-year relationship and really didn't think that I was at risk. He did something kind of crazy and went to jail. And this is what I do know, he was locked up for six months. He went in negative, and he came out HIV positive. We came together as usual, and I immediately got pregnant after him coming home. And when I was about four months pregnant, I went to the doctor to do prenatal care and they tested me for HIV, and the test came back positive. That was horrible.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Excuse me for a second, I just want to make sure I grab it and therefore they grab it as well. It sounds like your experience was like most, well, not most, but some Black women who don't find out their status until they go to the OB for pregnancy.
Robin Thomas: Absolutely.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: So, you found out you were having a baby and that you had HIV in the same conversation?
Robin Thomas: Absolutely. But this is the thing though. He and I had been together for 14 years, so this is our third child. That's why I know it had to happen when he was incarcerated because I had tested negative with the other children, you know what I mean? It was a really hard place to be in. But absolutely, I found out after I was expecting, which is a challenge in itself to be carrying a baby and then found out that you're HIV positive. But back in that time, things were so much different because they didn't know how to treat an HIV positive woman to be sure that the child did not become positive because... Just a little short story. My neighbor lived across the street and me and her used to talk all the time. And one day I look across the street and she had a baby. And I said, "I didn't know you was expecting." She said, "No, I wasn't," she said, "but my sister is incarcerated, and I agreed to take care of her baby."
I used to see her and this baby all the time, and after about seven months, the baby passed. She never did say that when I had seen her with the baby all the times, but what she said to me was her sister was positive and the baby was born infected. Now imagine this, I'm seven months pregnant. And when that baby died, fear. I was just so overwhelmed with fear because my thing was, I truly hope that my child is not born with the virus as well, because at that time they didn't know how to prevent it. It was a crazy time, but we made it through. And what was remarkable was... Also, if you had a baby and you was HIV positive, did you know for two years they ran all kinds of tests and draw blood to make sure that that baby did not test positive?
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Wow, I didn't know that.
Robin Thomas: Yeah, back in that time.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: So, you had to take your daughter back and forth to... Was it at the hospital or your-
Robin Thomas: Yeah, at the hospital.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: ... pediatrician.
Robin Thomas: And guess what else? My baby was on AZT from the time of birth.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Because you were positive?
Robin Thomas: Because I was positive.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: So, even without knowing her status or testing or anything.
Robin Thomas: They put her on AZT. They were saying that even if she was going to convert and become positive, this would be something that could possibly help to prevent that. But that was really, really hard because her quality of life was horrible. I say that because my baby cried constantly. It didn't matter whether she was changed, bathed, she was fed. AZT was hard for adults, so it had to be hard on her system. I'm going to be honest with you, I could only do it for four months. I just couldn't do it anymore because she cried constantly. I prayed about it and just... I held her a lot and she is rotten. Even today, she's rotten.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Just loved extra. Don't say rotten. Don't do her like that.
Robin Thomas: Yeah, I really spoiled her. I told her other brothers and sisters, "If you see her doing something, just divert her. Don't spank her. Don't yell at her." But I was concerned about her from the time she was born, but she's doing well, and she never did test positive. It was a really crazy time, and it was a lot of stress being pregnant and being HIV positive.
Malachi Stewart: Yeah, I can imagine. As you talk about the fear, you mentioned something when you talked about your previous partner, her father coming out of jail, and you came together as usual as you said, because you didn't think that you had any risk because you were a straight woman having sex with what you presumed as a man who only had sex with women. And just because we know here in the DMV here in D.C., we know the second most likely is Black women. We know that the prevalence of HIV among Black women who are cisgendered, who are heterosexual, who have sex with men is higher than if you were a white man who was having sex with men. I think your representation is important. You talked about also finding out while you were pregnant. Martha, my understanding is that your experience with pregnancy and HIV was a little different. Tell us a little bit about how you contracted HIV and how that related to pregnancy for you.
Martha Cameron: Yes, sure. I'm actually originally from Africa, and a country called Zambia, which is in Sub-Saharan Africa, and was basically, and I think still is, the epicenter of the HIV epidemic. It was very hard hit. We lost a lot of people. My generation, very few of us can say we still have our parents and I seroconverted in 2003. It was a little later than Robin, but without sharing all the horror stories about what I went through, I had a T-cell count of two, that's zero two. Essentially, they thought I would be dead within several months, if that. And of course, you know Africa is always the last to get medications and things like that. But God had other plans because 2003 is when the United States government actually sent aid to Africa in the form of their presidential emergency fund. So, I was able to get treatment. Fast-forward to a time when I think the worst thing that could have happened to me other than HIV was the fact that I would not have been able to be a mother.
The scenario in Africa, there is an expectation of marriage obviously in our society, but I had also just known that I was going to be a mother from the time I was very young. Even though I was HIV positive, I ended up being blessed to find a man who could marry me, which again, very unusual in the time that I was living and in the place where HIV is very stigmatized. They know you're HIV positive, you're unapproachable. But I was able to get married and I knew that I wanted to have children. And the doctors were talking about research that was happening to the extent that they were saying they could prevent mother to childbirth transmission. We're trying not to call it that now because it's stigmatizing language. It's called vertical transmission. But there was now, at least by then, established that if a mother was on treatment, she would not pass the virus on to her child.
But again, this was still in research, and I'll talk a little bit more about why I'm passionate about that because it enabled me to have children. They had understood that the mother wouldn't be able to pass on the virus, but also still that even though a child was born negative, they still had to give that AZT, but for a shorter time, for six months as opposed to two years. There was also research being done. Again, still had not been established that if you were positive, you might not pass on the virus to your partner. Even that was an early experiment for us to have unprotected sex in order to have children was... You might call it courageous, I think it was pretty scary for us to do because I was not only thinking about the potential of passing this virus onto my child, I was also thinking about the potential of passing this virus on to my partner.
You have to live through that. The doctors are saying, "Look, we're seeing that it's being established that there's prevention of mother-to-child transmission. You'll be okay." We're seeing that. U = U because you did not exist in 2003, but they were already seeing that if somebody was on... So, they encouraged us and said, "You could do this." And so, we did. We had sex the regular old-fashioned way in order to get pregnant. But let me tell you, it really did wear on my mental health. It really did wear on where I would have nightmares about either my child being positive, us dying. The times that my partner would go to get tested just to check and we would have to wait. In those days, no rapid tests, you'd have to wait a couple days were the hardest days.
I would be staring at this person and saying, "so, what would you do? Will you tell me what you really will do and what you really will feel if you were to turn out positive?" They would tell me, "Well, you know what? I'll just start taking the medication like you are." I think they used to say that in order to calm it down. But yeah, hardest nine months ever to be able to go through that. But the most beautiful thing is having the two children that are both HIV negative are now 14 and 12 and thriving.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes.
Malachi Stewart: Awesome.
Robin Thomas: Yes.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: How my heart fills for that because I'm mom. And so, I was like, "Okay, we're going to talk to some other moms." I just go back to the moment that I found out I was pregnant and just this joyous information. But I also think of times when I lost children and it wasn't as joyous. When I hear you all speak about experience, I bring in that thought as a mom and you carrying it and your baby moving but isn't moving as much as it's supposed. I can just imagine. How did you guys transition? Where did that space come from of this is how I found out and this is my child and I have to make these decisions for my child in addition to my decisions for myself? Where did you pull that strength from? Where did that come from to still be able to mother but mother yourself right in the process?
Robin Thomas: I want to say that I do have four children.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Okay. [inaudible 00:13:46].
Robin Thomas: Yes. In my mind, I think failure wasn't an option. I had to stay sane because I imagined that I had to be there for my children. When you a mother, you always put your children first. I didn't want to think about other people having an opportunity to raise my children.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: That part, yeah.
Robin Thomas: I wanted to be there. So, my prayer was, "Lord, let me get through this and let me be here to see my children get old enough to take care of themselves." Because let's see, 27 years ago, I had known some people that was positive, but I will say this, that I knew a lot of people who had died of AIDS, and that was scary in itself. So, I grappled with how long would I be here to take care of them? But the most amazing thing is 27 years later, they're all grown. And now I'm here loving on my grandchildren. And that is just amazing to me because I never thought I would last as long.
For instance, I've been wearing a wig for five or six years because my hair had gotten gray and everything and I was having some little issues with it. I snatched that wig off about three months ago. I said, "You know what? I didn't even know I would be here."
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hello. And you worried about a wig? [inaudible 00:15:15].
Robin Thomas: But not only that, I think about the fact that I grew up with a lot of people who are not here, and it had nothing to do with HIV. You know what I mean? And some people that knew my status probably thought that I wouldn't be here for a long time, so I'm just grateful. I would say holding on for my children was important to me, you know what I mean? That gave me the strength to keep on pressing on.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Thank you for that.
Martha Cameron: I can barely talk about this journey without including my faith. I think everybody has their higher power and we all have to hold onto that. But I got to tell you that I think... I have the two experiences, having the one child in Africa and having the second child here. You tend to need more strength I think here in the U.S. as a person who's a minority, as a person who might be of low income, which when I came here, I was. I was depending on the Ryan White funding and care to get my medication. And your child is immediately designated a Medicaid recipient when the child is born. The first thing that happens when you're pregnant here as an HIV positive woman is you're declared high risk with immediate effect. Before that, even when I approached my OBGYN, and this might not be everybody's experience, and this is why I do what I do in terms of advocacy, is because my OBGYN told me I had no right having children as an HIV positive woman, especially of the socioeconomic status that I was.
She offered to tie my tubes immediately after this child was born, assuming I wanted to carry it through. She was very clear about the position that I was in and held that position until the very last day when I was having my C-section. As an HIV positive woman, up until very recently, it was the standard procedure for you to have a cesarean section. They have changed that, you can now have natural birth. Again, in the advent of the research that has led to U = U and prevention from other to child transmission. Because of my fear, I continued to have C-sections even after that decision was made. But up until that day on the operating table, she indicated that she needed to tie my tubes. And I told her she had no right to. There's a lot more that happens with especially Black women.
Until very recently, actually up until January 31st of 2023, women living with HIV were not allowed to breastfeed in this country, even though that has been done for over 20 years, again, in the rest of the world, partly because the women there could not afford formula, but also because the research had been done to show that there was very little, less than 1% transmission through breast milk. It has been done. But in the U.S., they decided to keep that standard, and so women did not have that choice. If you were opting to breastfeed breast and chest feed, and we use inclusive language now, you were at risk of being criminalized for that. The standard for most hospitals was to call child protection services because then they would say that you're putting your child at risk.
In addition to just your personal mental health of being pregnant and carrying a child and thinking about all those things that go with it, there are these external factors that challenge you because your OBGYN is saying you need to have your tubes tied. You should not be having children. You're going to be stressing the system. That also will coach out protective services. The health department did come knocking on my door to make sure the child was taking the AZT and the fact that I was not breastfeeding. These are the reasons why, well, first of all, why I'm here, but also why we want to reach young women because even the younger women now who are vertical, so these are young women who were born with HIV and now having children, and that's beautiful.
We still have younger women who are at most risk. The highest diagnosis are among our adolescent and young adult populations. We want them to be empowered to know that they can advocate for themselves. It is absolutely not necessary for anyone to stop you having a child if you're HIV positive. You do not need to go through the stress of even thinking about transmission if you do things right, because we're standing on the shoulders of giants who have been through their research and have shown that this is not possible. There's absolutely no need for child protective services to ever approach you or put you at risk for whatever it is because you have the space and the advocacy and the policies to protect you. Absolutely.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Wow. Some of it just don't make sense to me, and so I apologize because I think about... For a disease or HIV and AIDS, that's something that was contracted from having sex. When we think about all of these limitations and these policies and things that isolate, it's isolation because I'm diabetic, but when I go and have a child, it's just, let me prick your finger, check your sugar, blah, blah, blah, blah. But it's not, oh, well, you need to make sure you feed your child, make sure your child don't eat starch, make sure your carbs is right for your child because then they can end up with diabetes too. Who picks and chooses all of these different caveats for things? How can you tell a mother, I can't really mother the way that I know and the way that I've been raised to know because you're going to tell me?How's she going to tell you that she going to tie your tubes? I am just still sitting with the privilege that certain people hold. Wow. I'm sorry, it just-
Malachi Stewart: And that's stigma.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes it.
Malachi Stewart: I appreciate your reaction because that's the reaction that's needed. I'm so surprised that people hear these things and they sitting calm. I'm like, "Y'all not outraged about something that is outrageous?"
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Because how can you tell somebody that you don't have a right. I have my opinions about some people who don't need to have children.
Robin Thomas: Absolutely.
Malachi Stewart: And it's not about health status.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: We see them all day, but it's not their... I don't know their health. I just know how they treat their children.
Malachi Stewart: Can I ask something? It's very clear to me, and I am not, having worked in the field, surprised to hear that you got those responses from medical professionals. I would like to know from both of you, what was the social kickback? Especially because you have two different experiences on the couch, like Robin, you found out why you were pregnant, but you know how people are, especially our people. And you made a decision, so I already know what they was giving. What was the social response to being pregnant?
Robin Thomas: First of all, I like to say that I didn't talk about being HIV positive to anyone at that time because there was so much stigma associated with it. And I didn't talk about being HIV positive to anyone at that time because there was so much stigma associated with being positive. Unlike Margaret, I opted to have my tubes tied because all of the things that I went through with having her and all of the things that she was going through with as far as the treatments and being on AZT and so forth and so on, and then not knowing if she would ever be positive, I didn't want to. I had four children anyway, so that's a lot. But I really didn't tell anyone that I was positive for five years. It was a crazy time because I was dealing with a lot of depression, but I was still trying to move life forward and still trying to raise my children.
So, it was at the fifth year... I'm telling you, after I woke up five years straight every day, I was like, "You know what? I didn't even know..." And not only that, I was not sick, so that made a difference too. After a while I said, "You know what? I'm pretty much wasting time here because I could have accomplished more with the five years besides just take care of my children and take care of my home and so forth and so on." Do you know at the fifth year I went back to school and started college?
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hey now.
Robin Thomas: I was like, "You know what? When it's all said and done, if I haven't done anything with my life, it's my old fault." You know what I mean? Somebody said, if you don't like... Okay. Write your own obituary is what I read. And if you don't like what you write about yourself, then it's time to get busy. You know what I mean? So that you will have a decent story to tell when it's all over because appointed to all of us to go, you know what I mean? But what will your life say? How will your life speak about you? So, I said, "You know what? I'm going to school." The best thing I could have ever done for myself because I'm just so grateful today that I had an epiphany. I ain't did yet, so let me start living. So, no, I didn't deal with a lot of stigma at that time because no one knew, but it came to a place in my life that... I have faith in the Lord too. I go to church and love the Lord.
But it came to a time that I think I was pressed in my spirit to start talking about my story because I knew so many people who were suffering in silence. And it came to a point where the Lord began to deal with me about being open, about being positive. And I'll never forget, I was in the shower, and He was speaking to me about talking more about being positive. And I remember I said, "Lord, I can't do it," I said, "they're going to talk about me something terrible." He said, "But they talked about me.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yeah, right. I love that [inaudible 00:26:16].
Robin Thomas: I remember it was yesterday. He said, "Remember this? No matter what they say, no matter what they do," He said, "they can't kick you out, put you out or evict. You are in the body of Christ. You are mine and I am yours." And I went and I told my pastor that and he was like, "Okay, okay." But look, when I went and told him I was crying the whole time because I still wasn't on board with that yet. But I was able to talk about it from the pulpit, and I told a room full of 200 people. What was amazing about that was I forgot we was live streaming. So, by the time I sit down in my chair, the cat was really out the bag.
Malachi Stewart: Yeah, you told more than 200 people, baby.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: That phone was ding, ding, ding.
Robin Thomas: Yeah, and people was texting and telling me, thank you, and so forth and so on. But I will say this, I never felt more free in my whole entire life when I was able to tell that that is what happened to me. But if you see a woman who's HIV positive, well, my story is I'm AIDS diagnosis, well, Margaret. But if you see that and that's all you see, you have missed it because there's so many layers to who Robin really is. So, no, I will say that I haven't dealt much with the stigma in the sense that you have to have some tough skin and get to the place where... You know what I say? What you think about me is none of my business. It don't even really matter, and so I'm just going to move it forward.
I also facilitate a women's group, and I tell them all the time, I say, "Look, nobody has the right to make you feel any kind of way." I told them or they found out I was positive and they said this, and it made me feel... No, I don't give nobody the right to make me feel any kind of way about myself. I love me some me, and it don't even really matter what you think about me.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: That part.
Robin Thomas: I have to move my life forward. So, no, I don't participate in a stigma, and I'm committed to helping women who are HIV positive feel okay with themselves. You know what I mean? I'm committed to it.
Malachi Stewart: Absolutely. What about you?
Martha Cameron: Well, stigma was very real and it's still very real. And I think people underestimate the impact that that has on the decision to even test and then what happens after. We are social beings. And when I was positive, I was very visibly sick, so they knew. Just the same way we would've known. So, it wasn't very difficult for people to find you. You start feeling the stigma when you visit people and where it used to be family gatherings and you can see some of their reactions in terms of people, the way they're interacting with you. Even with the church, I think as much as our community is so very connected with the church, a lot of us have religious trauma. Not just for being HIV positive, but here in the U.S. I've found even just for I think our identities and stuff. A big deal for me... When I got married, for example, I asked the pastor that was presiding to say. If there were whispers, I needed people to know, he already knows she's HIV positive.
And then of course when the babies were coming, they were watching because they expected these skinny or sick babies to be born. But of course, they were not, they beautiful. I don't need to say anything, they just watch and see. But that is now a critical part of my work because I think some of the hardest things that are happening, especially among young people, is this spectrum of disclosure. Relationships are so important, and it really boils down to how the other person feels. I've been married for 16 years, but it's still something that we barely talk about. In spite of that, the babies have been gone, and that's in our past now, but it's still something that's so hard to even relay to this person who talks to me every day. We never talk about it in family gatherings, even though people know and that continues to happen.
So, I tread very carefully, even when we're encouraging, especially our younger folks to disclose and to address some of the trauma they have already dealt with, and they might still deal with because it's going to come. It is truly a spectrum. It's a journey that you have to go through, but it's all with the idea that you want to share. There's nothing impossible. You can have a relationship. You can protect yourself several ways, including the fact that your partner could be on prep. That should not get in the way of a loving relationship. And then that you can have a family and however you choose to define and create your family, there's nothing impossible now. I think it's finding that journey and that strength to not care about what other people might think or say.
Robin Thomas: Absolutely. That's so important.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Thank you. A question for you, Ms. Robin. As you were talking, you said that you stayed silent for five years. Within that silence, do you think that some of that silence played a role in the nosy stigma of now if you say you're positive, then it's like you have to protect his secret or what happened to him because you contracted it from your partner who went away, came home, and now you have a life shift. Do you think part of that five years of silence was dealing with that? You processing that?
Robin Thomas: Absolutely. I was afraid to speak about being positive, but make no mistake about it, HIV broke us up. That was it.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: I love what you said. Okay.
Robin Thomas: Absolutely, because I didn't have any other partners, so I didn't have to guess about where the transmission came from. I knew that the transmission came from him. So, we weren't together anymore. And that was kind of crazy because what he initially told his family was that I was in a relationship or having sex with someone when he was locked up.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: So, he threw it back on you.
Robin Thomas: Yeah, he did. But five years later, he got very, very, very sick and he was diagnosed, and so his family was like, "Wow, she was telling the truth."
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Hold on, wait a minute, Ms. Robert. Hold on. He came home, you found out when you were pregnant, so he never knew even then, he didn't go get tested once you found out?
Robin Thomas: I'm pretty sure he didn't. I'm pretty sure he didn't. Yeah, I'm pretty sure he didn't. But I knew that he was aware that he probably was in contact with another male that could possibly-
Tei Pearson-Hal...: I'm sure at that point he knew what was up, yeah.
Robin Thomas: But a lot of people like to be in denial. No, that wasn't important because as long as he was feeling okay and doing okay, I don't think that was a priority. Like I said, he told a story about, "Oh, well, she was with someone."
Tei Pearson-Hal...: It was you out there messing.
Robin Thomas: Yeah, absolutely.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Oh, wow.
Robin Thomas: But yeah, I did have a lot of issues with stigma. I really did. And that's why I didn't talk about it for five years. Worried about what people was going to say and then also what people was going to say about my child. It was really, really a tough time. But I really am an advocate for what don't kill you, make you stronger. Today I'm just so grateful that is behind me and I survived it because I help... In my work, I work with a lot of women who are positive, and some people never recover. Some people deal with... And it doesn't matter. For instance, there are people who's been positive for 20 years, they're in denial, they haven't accepted it, and they're still dealing with stigma. But you have to get to a place where first of all, you accept what has happened. You forgive yourself. Hold up. And then you forgive.
A lot of times, women know where the transmission came from too. You have to forgive that person as well because when you hold all of that stuff in, you self-destruct. It's the reason why so many people use, drink and don't really care about themselves and don't do the things that they need to do to take care of themselves. I suffered with that for a while, but I'm just so grateful that that's behind me now. And I talk about HIV so much now. I could be at a grocery store, and I might say something about my work or being positive and people will look at me. Because I'm at a place where I'm comfortable in my skin, it does not really matter to me what someone else is saying. I'm comfortable in my skin.
Malachi Stewart: Absolutely. Can I say something about that? I know-
Robin Thomas: Absolutely.
Malachi Stewart: ... we don't have much time and I definitely want to give you opportunity to both say at least one thing to a woman out there thinking about pregnancy if she's HIV positive or just found out she was pregnant. I definitely want to give you that space. But it would be remiss for me not to say on this platform that I remember years ago, and I'll be brief, just working at whatever organization that was we were working at together and being in a space where I was comfortable now sharing about my status. But the professional advice, and I don't know if you remember at that time, it was like, you get to be two people. You can be the person that's talking about your experience and that's going to limit the amount of money you make and the track that your career goes on or you could be the person supporting it, but you don't...
To be both, you're not going to really be able to find that. I remember in that role I was telling you like, "You know, Robin, I want to share." And I couldn't find my space and I couldn't find my voice. We talk a lot about how we stand on the shoulders of giants. To have you here on this platform where now it's been so many years where I'm doing what I saw you doing back then. I just needed to say thank you for being a giant who lended a shoulder for me to stand. I needed to give you that while you were here. With that said, if you both-
Robin Thomas: Thank you.
Malachi Stewart: ... could just briefly just give one thought to someone out there that is dealing with HIV and pregnancy, just one word of advice, one call to action. What would you both say?
Martha Cameron: First of all, it's I think to know that it's not impossible anymore. It's not impossible for you to have a loving and fulfilling relationship without fear. And it's not impossible for you to get pregnant and have a baby. I didn't really get a chance to talk about my work and the research that we're doing. I've been working in the community for a long time, but also working with research. You talked about standing on the shoulders of giants. And I just want to invite, especially young women to seek out and participate ways that they can contribute to something that can help them, give them information about themselves, their bodies, as well as help other people.
I know that there are support groups and women's groups like the one that Ms. Robin is leading, but at the Georgetown Medical Center, we actually have a research going on for young women that helps them understand their reproductive health and capacity. This is not just for positive women. It's for negative and positive women. It really helps you understand yourself, what's going on, what could happen. It could help you and it could help others as well. So, just know that it's not impossible. We are here, we are everywhere as mentors, as peers to support you, but we're also there to help you find out what is actually possible with you.
Malachi Stewart: Awesome. Thank you for that. Would you add anything?
Robin Thomas: And I just want to say education is key. How can you defeat your enemy unless you know what weapons it possess? And that was important for me when I first tested positive. I said, "You know what? I need to learn all I can learn about this thing called HIV because it's not what I heard people say or what I think about it, but just educating myself." Once I educated myself and learned more about what HIV really was, I felt more empowered. That's important to know today that first of all, you can have a healthy child and if you're undetectable, it means untransmittable. So, I would say just education, that's so important.
Malachi Stewart: Speaking of education, Martha, you are the statistics person because let me tell you something. She ain't just out here doing the work. She know the stats.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: That's what I was to ask.
Malachi Stewart: If they had 10 women lined up, all of them are HIV positive. How many of those women would represent the amount of women that are HIV positive that are Black?
Martha Cameron: Nine.
Malachi Stewart: Nine.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Nine out of 10?
Martha Cameron: That's 90%, if you want to do some quick math. Nine out of 10 women in this region and specifically in the district are Black women. Again, like you were saying, if you don't jump at that fact and ask why... I can tell you a little bit more, we know that those women are located mostly in ward eight, ward seven, ward six. And-
Malachi Stewart: So, lower income, Black women. Let's call it [inaudible 00:40:51].
Martha Cameron: Yes. Let's call it what it is. When we started doing education, education is very important. We wanted to take the blame off of the... It's not because you've done something wrong, it's because you're living in a location where there is a high potential of you hooking up with someone-
Robin Thomas: Who's positive.
Martha Cameron: ... or being with someone who is positive. And if you had that information, then you would know how to take care of yourself. And I feel like we're not saying that enough to, especially, our young people in those areas. So, it is really important to understand that this is truly... HIV, especially in the district, is a racial justice issue. It truly is. As Black people, we need to understand we're more impacted, but again, due to no fault of our own. This stuff is systematic. And it is absolutely because we are living in a place where they call it double whammy. There's all kinds of things that can happen to you just because you're in a particular location.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Powerful.
Martha Cameron: D.C. is second in terms of your capacity to be able to contract HIV. So, when we talk about prevention, we're second only to Baltimore. If you go in the order of who is most at risk, we know that our Black gay brothers are very high at risk. And then second, as you're saying in terms of too, it is our Black heterosexual women. That is really, really, really important to know. It's not like you walk around the streets knowing, oh, we're number two in the nation, or oh, I have this risk ratio that people don't even know that don't even understand. You just live where you live and you know what you know? But I think our education and forums like this hopefully get this information out for you to equip yourself and understand how to protect yourself so that we can end this epidemic among our people.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Thank you. As we wrap up, I have one last question for you both and you guys can look at the camera if you want. Why was today important for you to come in and to have a conversation about pregnancy and HIV? Why are you here today? Why are you here today?
Robin Thomas: I just want to say it was very important for me to come and share my story because I hope to inspire somebody and even let some people know that HIV is not the end all because you can live a healthy life afterwards. And not only that, you can still look to the future. Also, you want people to know that if there ever was a time to be HIV positive, it's now because there's so many different things that can help you. You know what I mean? 27 years ago, the medication wasn't as good, and you had so many side effects and even the medication was causing death. But we have a very, very broad arsenal now and people can stay undetectable. The bottom line is a person who's HIV positive can live just as long as someone who's not. That does not-
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Sometimes longer.
Robin Thomas: Yes. That does not affect the lifespan anymore. It's important for us to come and be able to talk about our journey and how we got through it and maybe inspire some other people to get through it as well.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Thank you. What about you, Ms. Martha?
Martha Cameron: Oh, I wasn't going to miss this opportunity for the world. My beautiful children inspire me to get up every day and it's getting harder to get up every day. But I think like Ms. Robbins said, there are some young people out there that need to hear us hear our stories and know that there's absolutely nothing impossible for their lives. You can have your babies, but there's so much more out there as well that you can do and accomplish, that you're special and that you're loved no matter what anybody tells you.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: Yes. You've heard it, folks, another great episode of Positive Voices. We had two amazing moms sit down and share their journey with us. They talked about statistics and you're like, well, that's a lot of numbers. Where can I find it? You can head on over to the website, link, L-I-N-K, Capital U dmv.org. Okay? Go there, type your zip code in. You'll have a cluster of resources pop up for you. Education is key because that's what our guests have told us today. You also can head to another website. You can head to dcednshiv.org/podcast. Click the link up top, take a survey. You can watch more episodes, but you also can find out some more about what we were talking about this season and connect with us, like, share, subscribe, comment because we want to know your thoughts. The guests will be looking back to do some more feedback with you as well. We'll see you guys on another episode of Positive Voices. I'm Tei.
Malachi Stewart: I'm Malachi.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: And we had our guests here today.
Robin Thomas: Robin.
Martha Cameron: I'm Martha.
Tei Pearson-Hal...: And we'll see you guys next time. Bye-Bye.

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LinkU is a free and easy-to-use resource to help you find services that you need in your area. It is DC, Prince George’s County, and Montgomery County’s goal to make sure everyone who lives, works, and plays in the DMV area can access the services they need, including help with HIV prevention and care.

Meet the Hosts

Martha Sichone
(she/her/HERS)

Martha Sichone is originally from Zambia, Africa where she was born and raised; she has bachelor’s in education and a Master’s in Public Health. Martha is a Research Enrollment and Retention Specialist at Georgetown MWCCS Combined Cohort. Martha has worked in various Executive roles and is still engaged in various community-based organizations including National Working Positive Coalition, the International Community of Women Living with HIV North America, The Positive Women’s Network, and the Women’s Collective; all are leading community health, human rights, economic, social justice, and advocacy organizations. Some also provided prevention, care, support and employment education and services.

Martha started her career in Zambia as the Executive Director of an international faith-based non-profit called Every Orphan’s Hope (EOH) Inc. in Zambia where she had hands-on experience running HIV programs for orphans and widows. Martha still supports EOH and with Children’s AIDS Fund International.

Martha is actively involved in various HIV policy, advocacy and research forums including United States People Living with HIV Caucus and DC Center for AIDS Research.

Robin Thomas
(She/hER)

A loving mother of 4, a fierce community advocate, and a long-term survivor of HIV, Robin Thomas has committed her life to advocating for the care and treatment of people living with HIV. She is particularly passionate about the health and wellness of Black women, assuring them that they know their risks and prioritize their well-being. Robin continues to work in the community to share her experiences with others and connect them to medical and social support services.

Funded by Health Resources and Services Administration Cooperative Agreement (HRSA-20-078)

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