Her bright smile and positive aura filled up the room when she made her entrance. She made San Pedro her home for many years, sharing life and love with her family and friends. Rasta Pasta was the famous restaurant that she operated, which brought a unique zest and flavor to the island and at one point in the neighboring island of Caye Caulker. Maralyn Gill was an active member of the community and made much friendly relationships all over.
But then came a time when life brought Maralyn some big challenges and she had to move to the United States. Many did not know of her whereabouts, some lost contact with her and only a few friends and family members kept in contact.
This week Ambergris Today caught up with Maralyn after her picture appeared on the Rise Up To HIV Facebook Page. “No shame about being HIV Positive” stated her picture. After getting ill and going through some challenging times, she moved away from Belize to get some help. It was a move that changed her life.
Maralyn Gill’s shared her story with the world on the Rise Up to HIV Facebook page. It is a campaign where people share their life experiences about living with HIV and showing that there is ‘no shame about being HIV positive”. To learn more about the campaign click on the following link: http://www.facebook.com/riseuptohivandhcv
Like Maralyn, there are others who share their life stories with the world. Today we are happy to have made contact with Maralyn and find out that she is doing well and working towards making a positive change in the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS. Below is Maralyn Gill’s story:
“My name is Maralyn Gill, I am 57 years old, mother of 3, grandmother of 8 and a widow. I was diagnosed HIV positive in 2004 in the small Central American country of Belize. We moved to Belize in 1991, my husband was from there and in 1996 we opened our restaurant and it was quite a success. We were married for 18 years in what I thought was a monogamous marriage, or so I thought, until 2001 when my husband turned 50 and went flipsy and left me for a young Honduran girl.
Later that year in 2001 just after 9/11, we lost everything in a category five hurricane and two weeks after that my husband was found dead in Belize City. I reopened my restaurant on a small island there but started getting ill with flu like symptoms and night sweats. After much antibiotics and then told it was probably just menopause for the following three years. In 2004 I was diagnosed with Hepatitis A while on vacation in Miami and hospitalized for 10 days and was given an array of tests including an HIV test but upon release I was told to rest when I got home and I assumed all tests came back negative, no problem.
When we got back to Belize, I still was not doing well and went to a specialist in internal medicine. After another array of tests he called me into his office and sat me down. The good news he said was that I didn't have cancer but the bad news, after checking it twice, was that I had tested positive with HIV.
I was devastated and questioned how did and when did I catch it. This could not be happening to me. There was no counselor to talk to and was directed to go to the only HIV specialist that had an office at the socialized hospital or go to his private office, but everyone knew what he specialized in and get the only meds available at a clinic in Belize City and again everyone knew why you were going there.
There was no confidentiality and word travels fast. The first thing I had to do was to call a family meeting and share the news. First denial set in and after receiving a phone call from the hospital in Miami asking me to fly back up because they had test results. They needed to see me in person to share with me; I thanked them and told them I already knew. That meant three tests came back positive and we sat there shocked, confused and scared. I had lost a friend to AIDS in the early 80's and watching him waste away in pain till death; this was something I couldn't put my family through. I had no idea of the stigma I was about to encounter.
I then contacted the men I had been intimate with and thank GOD no one caught it from me. As word spread, I went into a deep depression and never walked into the kitchen of my restaurant again. The restaurant next to mine actually built a metal fence between the two restaurants. I tried the meds that were available and all the meds available were all no longer used in America and I got so sick from the meds and that I decided I'd rather die.
I tried to get as much info over the net but hopelessness took over and started a horrible cocaine and alcohol habit and stayed in my room for four years trying to die. There was nothing my family could do and my daughter dropped out of college to run the restaurant for me. She did everything possible to try to help me but realized she just couldn't watch me dying and she moved to Portland Oregon.
I continued on my self destruction and by the end of February 2008 the doctors in Belize told me there was nothing more they could do for me. By March 3rd I was on a plane to Portland Oregon. After arriving, my daughter immediately checked me in to OHSU, a teaching university hospital where I was met by caring folks with so much compassion. I weighed 127 pounds, I'm 5'8" and diagnosed with full blown AIDS and opportune infections including a yeast infection through my esophagus and rest of my body, PTSD and heavy depression plus my addictions.
I started on meds and saw the psychiatrist. The shrink walked in the door and his first statement was "so u got AIDS from intravenous drug use "and my reply was "No I got it from my dead husband's penis". I had no idea how much stigma I was now going to have to deal with. I then went to Cascade Aids Project for an intake appointment and again treated with much compassion and the resources available for me and support amazing. I was told about a woman's group called the Women of Wisdom. I met other women of all ages and we all had one thing in common- our disease. With the support of these women I never went to rehab and am free of cocaine for five years now.
I lost my restaurant in Belize and have not returned to Belize. It is now the number one country in Central America with HIV per populous and will continue to be because they will not use condoms. “It’s not manly” and men have wife, girlfriends and sweethearts and then some of the men are in the closet and then the women have their guys also. It's a mess. I have been very active in my community to now give back from all that I received thru this wonderful community that has welcomed me with open arms.
I have done some peer mentoring, participated in all the aids walks and was on the billboards campaign for the 2011 Aids Walk and do speaking engagements about the plight of women that are infected. First of all, we all knew this as a gay mans disease and the meds have not specifically tested women so a 280 pound man takes the same meds as a 135 pound woman and we won't even talk about the side effects; the hormonal and emotional reality for women who still take care of the children and don't have time to be exhausted.
I led a round table discussion at the National Minority AIDS conference in 2010 about women and aging with HIV which we still don't have enough testing or information on. It's all the unknown that is so frustrating. I will continue to speak out to the older women who believe that are recent widows and new divorcees that have not been in the dating world and know that the main worry was getting pregnant or an incurable STD.
Now there is HIV out there and you can't smell it and it’s not visible. The other problem I find these days is the attitude of ‘it’s no big deal’. You just take some pills and you can live forever you won't die from it. What about the fact that I lost 70 percent of one of my kidneys due to a bad reaction from Atripila and a full knee replacement due to a disease that caused my bones to die in my knee and is now in the other knee.
HIV is still a disease with no cure. Hopefully in my lifetime we will go to Zero and in my prayers I hope to go back to Belize to share everything I have learned up here in Portland and see the change from people dying from AIDS in Belize to living with a chronic disease. I will continue my activism in my community, anxious to give back in thanks for giving me life again. Special thanks to Cascade AIDS Project and Women of Wisdom. Without their support the process would be unbearable. As a Positive widowed woman, my social life is lonely and don't know what lies ahead but will continue my work as a Positive Woman sharing my story to help others following in my footprints and to help prevent future infections.”