I am 28. White. A Female. And a former Peace Corps Volunteer. I am HIV Positive. This is my story of how a few months, a few people, and a few events in Zambia changed me and my life forever. This is the story of how I contracted HIV and brought my Peace Corps Journey to a crashing halt... and how I am working now to pick up and put back together the pieces of my life as a newly diagnosed person living with HIV. This was not the journey I had originally planned... my path has traumatically and dramatically changed... but it is the one I am on now. There is no going back. There is only forward. I welcome you to follow along with me as I attempt to explore this new life ahead of me, whether you are someone from the Peace Corps community, or someone living with HIV. I welcome your comments, questions, suggestions, and opinions. Let us go forward together. To start from the beginning, click here He Gave Me More Than A Bracelet.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Sister's Story

My name is Stephanie. I am Jessica's older sister. I am married and have a 4 yr old son. We are followers of Jesus and serve in ministry.  We currently have a house full of other peoples' teenage boys that we are raising in our home. We are conservative. We never thought that HIV would be something we would deal with in our family.

When Jessica got gravely ill in Africa, I had been calling and checking in with my mom almost daily for updates. We had everyone we knew praying. One Monday morning I called for an update because strangely I hadn't heard from my mom in several days. I was standing in our kitchen looking in the fridge for a snack, not knowing my whole world was about to be shaken.  My mom sounded funny on the phone and said Jessica was actually flying to DC the next day.  I asked if they knew what was wrong and she said "It isn't good. Jessica wants to tell you herself tomorrow." I knew if they were flying her home it was pretty bad and I was so scared at that point, thinking she must be dying. I don't even think the thought of HIV had crossed my mind yet. Isn't that weird how we seem to block the possibility of certain things from our mind? Anyways, I don't remember exactly what I said but basically I needed to know now and couldn't wait.  So my mom said "your sister is HIV+." Tears started rolling down my cheeks and I sat down in my kitchen, still holding on to the open fridge door. I have never truly experienced being speechless until that moment. I remember my mom talking and talking trying to tell me some reassuring facts that this wasn't a death sentence like it used to be, but I didn't say a word.  My mom didn't want to hang up with me like that I know but I just couldn't even process anything to say. I told her I'd call her tomorrow. Sometime during that phone call my husband had walked in the room and saw me, and he being much wiser than me knew right away what was wrong. He just let me be for a bit and I just layed in my bed and cried. I grieved for my sister, for the unknown future, for what she must have felt all alone in Africa when the doctors told her, for the time we might miss out on together when we are old, for the hard conversations she will have to have with guys she will date...I just grieved for her. I wanted more than anything to fly and be with her.

The next few days were a blur. I talked with my mom and she told me how sick Jessica still was and that the travel had wiped her out.  We had to carry on life as if nothing was wrong. I hated Facebook, everything seemed petty in comparison. I went through the motions.  I'd snap out of it and realize Nehemiah was acting up but couldn't even function enough to worry with it. For about 3 days, I remember one sentence going through my head as if on repeat "MY SISTER HAS HIV. MY SISTER HAS HIV. MY SISTER HAS HIV." I was in shock. I cycled like crazy through the stages of grief. Crying out to God for him to change it somehow, anger, denial, acceptance and back and forth through so many emotions.  Also, because I come from a long line of nerds, I researched like CRAZY! This helped so much because there is so much positive research out there.

Finally I talked to my sister and felt SO much better....she was still Jess, my little sister that I love more than she can know or understand. My heart aches for her and the sickness and situations she will have to face in her lifetime but if anyone can do it, she can.  She is one of the strongest and bravest women I know and we will be right by her side.

I would say the burden of keeping this "secret" was the hardest part. I don't lie, our family doesn't lie....we are just straight-forward, tell it to your face kind of people. Over and over people asked about Jessica and I'd have to say, "she is getting stronger" which she was physically, mentally and emotionally improving and grasping her diagnosis, but it still felt like a lie. So proud of her sharing openly now, it has brought us all such freedom and purpose.
The reactions of others have been amazing! I know my mom and sister have been shocked at my husband and my support. Unfortunately there is such a bad reputation out in the world for "religious" people, as most Christians are perceived. There are "religious" people out there that are quick to judge and show no mercy and no love at all....I do not want to have any part in that. That is not who Jesus is, not what the Bible teaches and is not who I try to live like daily. My friends that follow Jesus have had nothing but kind, loving and supportive words for me and our family. It has been such an eye-opener to me to see how true Christians can and should respond in times of crisis in people's lives. Being supportive does not mean you have to accept the behavior choice that caused this, but it does mean loving and supporting a person created in God's image that He (God) loves dearly.

My advice for the general public, friends, family and PCVs:  be thoroughly educated. Spread this blog and information and Jessica's story like wildfire.  Have HARD conversations with your middle school and high school students, grown children, friends, co-workers, etc. IT IS WORTH IT!  Working together to increase awareness, breakdown the negative stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, and preventing other lives from this disease is all of our responsibility.

Thank you Jess for allowing me to share! This has been healing for me to write, although hard to go back to that first week of finding out. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I typed.  I love you so much and am so proud of you!



  1. This paragraph was missing from above....

    My advice for the general public, friends, family and PCVs:  be thoroughly educated. Spread this blog and information and Jessica's story like wildfire.  Have HARD conversations with your middle school and high school students, grown children, friends, co-workers, etc. IT IS WORTH IT!  Working together to increase awareness, breakdown the negative stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, and preventing other lives from this disease is all of our responsibility. 

    1. Sorry Steph,
      I'm not at home and this computer I'm using keeps messing up. I fixed it now!

  2. Stephanie.

    Sharing the tears and feeling the sisterly love!

    Stay strong!

    Blessings to you and yours.

    Warm regards,
    A Concerned reader, Mary

  3. You guys are amazing people. I admire you all!

  4. As a fellow Christian with a younger sibling, this touched my heart. I can only imagine the degree of emotions you have endured during this experience with Jess and your family. Also, as a current PCV, I understand how Jess's situation can happen to anyone. No one is Inmune.

    Jess you are touching thousands with your words, therefore, KEEP THIS UP!

  5. As I sat here reading your story I didn't even notice I was crying, I was so drawn in to what you were saying. They are beautiful and powerful words - thank you for sharing.

  6. Thanks to you and your family for sharing your story it mustn't be easy but I'm glad that you are. I hope that people can read this and learn - I've shared a link to the blog on facebook in the hope that others will read it. I think that what you are doing is so brave and inspiring and wish you all the very best.

  7. Jess, your blog has touched me in ways I could never imagine and has truly changed my life. Thank you for your bravery, courage and honesty in sharing your story. You are an amazing family and are changing the world's perception of HIV+ people one reader at a time. With gratitude and love.

  8. Stephanie,
    I wish everyone who considered themselves a Christian shared your philosophy. Your sister is lucky to have such a supportive family, and I thank you both for sharing your stories and helping to educate everyone who reads this blog.