Woman who had undiagnosed HIV for 10 years ‘didn’t think straight people could get it’

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A woman has shared how she had HIV for ten years before being diagnosed and thought her husband had cheated when doctors told her the news.

Marcella, 57, from Solihull, went a whole decade without knowing she had the sexually transmitted disease.

She said when she finally got tested she was shocked to find out she was HIV positive as she wasn’t aware it could be transmitted to heterosexual women.

Marcella, who chose to not share her surname for privacy reasons, told Birmingham Live how her ordeal started while she was living in the Canary Islands and she got “really sick”.

By the time she got tested for HIV, the ambassador for AIDS charity, Saving Lives was in hospital as she had lost a lot of weight and was suffering from pneumonia and sepsis.

“Every time I went to the doctor they told me that they thought it was bronchitis and it was nothing to worry about,” she said.

“My sister convinced me to move back home because she was convinced I had TB at the time.

“I finally got a flight home and I ended up in hospital that night.

“It was a week or so before they actually said and suggested I’d be HIV positive because they thought then that because I am a heterosexual woman who is married that I wasn’t likely to be HIV positive.

“There were lots of things going on with me that when they said, ‘Can I do an HIV test?’ Honestly, I didn’t care. I just really didn’t care, I just wanted to know.

“I didn’t really know much about HIV at the time. When I came back with the diagnosis of it, I just straight away thought, ‘Oh my gosh, my husband’s been playing away’ because I hadn’t had many sexual partners myself.”

Marcella added because of how ill she was doctors presumed she had HIV for 10 years before she met her husband, who didn’t contract the virus during their relationship as it only became transferrable when she became sick.

She said her husband and family have been incredibly supportive of her during treatment, but added not everyone was so kind about it.

Things changed when Marcella diagnosed before she was able to be moved to a specialist ward.

“Before I got my diagnosis, and everyone was lovely to me, so kind, so helpful,” she said.

“Once I got the diagnosis, I really noticed a difference. People who didn’t want to come in had biohazard stickers all over the doors and were coming in with hazmat suits. It was just horrendous.

“It was just horrid the way you were treated. I did feel like a leper. I really did. And, and I think it’s still got an impact on me. I don’t always tell people about my status because I’m just frightened of how they’ll perceive it or see me.

“I remember, my niece wanted to cuddle me when I first came out of the hospital and I sort of stepped back thinking she might not really want to cuddle me it.

“And I remember trying to join a dental practice but as soon as I mentioned the status they didn’t want to know. So it was just horrible.”

Marcella began treatment with antiviral therapy (HAART) after her diagnosis which prevents her from spread the virus but has also allowed her to rebuild her immune system and live as healthy a life as anyone else.

Dr Steve Taylor, Lead Consultant Birmingham Heartlands HIV Service, was a junior doctor when he met Marcella on the ward.

He said: “Back in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, I worked on Ward 29 of Birmingham Heartlands Hospital, where I now attend COVID-19 patients in the ITU.

“Our wards were full of young men and women who were dying, wasting away to nothing with tubes coming out of their chest. We knew at that time that for some people their immune system was so damaged we could do little except palliate and make them comfortable.

“One of my patients was a young woman called Marcella. She was one of the first heterosexual patients I looked after, she recalls that in the early days she was very much treated by society like a leper. Beyond the HIV ward, many people were – wrongly, of course – terrified that they might catch “the AIDS” just by touching her or looking after her.

“Marcella went to ITU, like the COVID patients I’ve been treating in recent weeks. At that time it was felt there was very little chance of her coming out.

“However, one of the nicest women I know proved them all wrong: she rallied and became one of the first recipients of the new drug cocktails which were hailed at the time for bringing people back from the brink.

“I’m pleased to say that Marcella is still with us today – and after sepsis, pneumonia, renal failure, years of dialysis, a renal transplant, she has recently felt able to come out and say she’s HIV positive. That’s real progress – her story offers real hope.”