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AIDS will strike anyone, spare no one

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Aug. 15--Her smooth, caramel face hardly smiles anymore.

At age 36, Lynn D., who asked that her full name not be used, has little to smile about. She's HIV-positive and doing her best at raising a 16-year-old son who'd rather be schooled in the streets than in the classrooms.

Lynn's son was 9 when he asked her permission to hear an HIV-positive speaker in Florida, where they were living at the time. He came home spouting newfound knowledge about the virus -- and learned that his mother, then 29, had been diagnosed with HIV two years earlier.

Though that was the year the annual U.S. HIV infection rates began to decline overall, new infections continued to rise among black women.

The face of the epidemic began to look more like Lynn's: drug-free, black and heterosexual.

Today, black women account for about 70 percent of new HIV infections in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that black women are 18 times more likely to be infected with HIV than white women and five times more likely than Hispanic women.

The CDC estimated about 80 percent of HIV-positive black women were infected through heterosexual contact.

Lynn can count on one hand how many men she has slept with -- and so can her son. So when she told him she was HIV positive, that number didn't add up to the stereotypes and statistics her son had heard.

"You are not telling the truth," he insisted, then listed his reasons: "You're not a prostitute. ... You haven't had sex with a whole bunch of people. ... You have never done drugs. ... Have you ever had a blood transfusion?"

As she agreed that she didn't have those risk factors, he said, "Well, then you can't have it."

"Well, baby, I do," she told him.

Eventually he had to face a reality Lynn had been forced to accept after a 31-day hospital stay the year of her diagnosis.

"Skin was falling off my behind," she said of that time. "It hurt to go to the bathroom."

She was fighting pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, the most common opportunistic infection among people with HIV. "I had no immune system," she said.

Her son's father, from whom she'd recently separated, came to her bedside and asked her, "Does this mean we can't have sex anymore?"

"He was stupid, and I was young, dumb and in love," she said of the man she married at 19. Eight years later, they divorced.

"He gave me what I wanted, and he did what I told him to do," said Lynn of her ex-husband, from whom she suspects she got the virus. "And now I am paying dearly."

Marvelyn Brown of Nashville paid the price at age 19, when a man who could have had any woman "wanted to be with me," she said.

The 25-year-old man had a mocha-latte complexion, a strapping body, a head of coiffed braids, a new Pontiac and his own house.

"Everyone thought I had a good one," Brown, now 21, said.

"I thought he might want to spend the rest of his life with me. I thought I was special because he didn't want to use protection."

But it turned out that choice didn't protect her from her boyfriend's other sex partners -- secrets from her. Nor did it protect her from HIV.

Brown sought medical help after she inexplicably passed out in her front yard. It was then that she was diagnosed with HIV.

It took only six months for Brown to become an advocate, speaking at a Nashville World AIDS event. Now an HIV specialist for Nashville CARES, she hopes the sight of her healthy face and hourglass figure will drive home the reality that HIV can happen to anyone.

"I thought it couldn't happen to me," she said. "I was in the hospital thinking the worst the news could be was that I was pregnant."

Brown, who lost her virginity at 17, saw sex as a part of "growing up and becoming a mature young woman." Though people told her that her school had provided sex education, Brown didn't remember any.

"So I went back and looked at papers and books, only to discover one chapter about STDs and one paragraph about AIDS with a picture of man who was all skin and bones," she said.

Back then, Brown, a star athlete at White's Creek High School in north Nashville who was voted "most popular" in her class, didn't have a problem keeping a boyfriend around on her own terms.

Now those terms are different. Though she still turns men's heads, Brown divulges her status to anyone she is even interested in talking to, let alone date, over the phone.

"Some never call again, and some don't believe I am telling the truth," Brown said. "They think I am just saying that I am HIV positive because I really don't want to talk to them in the first place."

Still, Brown sees marriage and children in her future.

That's something Lynn doesn't even consider anymore.

"I had boyfriends; now that ain't my thing," Lynn said. Her current nighttime companions are three toy-like dogs: two Dachshunds and a terrier mix.

Antiretroviral drug therapies have allowed Brown and Lynn to live with HIV -- the No. 1 cause of death in black women 25-34 years old.

But it's not an easy life. Lynn suffers from paralyzing neuropathy -- pain from nerve damage -- that strikes her legs, making it difficult to walk or drive. And fat deposits -- a condition known as lipodystrophy -- distort her figure, resting on her breasts, stomach, waist and legs.

Once, she prayed to God to let her die. These days, she prays for good days -- for herself and for her son, who answers to a probation officer after an arrest for drug possession.

"I just wake up and hope today will be a good day, and I won't be so tired," said the former respiratory therapist, who went on medical disability after her diagnosis.

Such exhaustion has kept her at times from being a strict disciplinarian to her athletically talented son, who once wanted to become a doctor and cure his mother, she said. Now she worries about getting a phone call telling her he's in trouble. But she hopes she doesn't have to worry he'll practice risky sex.

"I don't have to tell him anything about sex that he isn't living through," Lynn said. "He knows sex makes babies and causes diseases."

Brown hopes what she's lived through can serve as an example for others, helping them stop self-destructive behavior -- and ultimately save lives.

"I still get frantic voicemails from friends who have slept with someone without using a condom," she said.

"And they know me. They know my story."


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Copyright (c) 2005, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn.

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