A young woman who has managed to hold a deadly disease at bay for years says she couldn't have done it without speaking out publicly about the virus that threatens her life.
Kim, 30 and HIV-positive, has found a great demand for her message on AIDS prevention and education.
She comes to Carroll County tomorrow to share life lessons with students at Western Maryland College. Not so long ago, the Baltimore woman might have been sitting in the audience thinking how irrelevant AIDS was to her life.
"I never believed it could happen to me," she said. "I was so naive."
The question most frequently asked is how she contracted the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. She has traced her infection to a college relationship 10 years ago with "a guy I loved and trusted. I choose to believe that he didn't know he was at risk."
The relationship ended five years before Kim learned she was infected with HIV. She has since learned that the young man is dying of AIDS.
Several times a week now, she delivers a speech that she hopes could save a life, often to college students.
"College students are the fastest growing group to test positive for HIV," said Bonnie Bosley, a registered nurse and medical services coordinator at Western Maryland College.
Ms. Bosley works with the college's peer education group, which is sponsoring Kim's visit.
"The peer group wants to make a difference on this campus and in their generation," Ms. Bosley said. "The facts of how this disease takes over your life really matter."
Kim delivers a similar message on campuses, at churches and to youth groups.
"I don't believe anyone should die of this disease," she said. "I am living with it. When I talk to an audience, I can always see at least one face change and know that I have made a difference to at least one person."
Although she does not hide her illness, she adheres to her family's request to use only her first name in public.
"They are scared there could be repercussions for me," she said.
Since her diagnosis five years ago, Kim has been a program director in a health club and trained and run in several marathons. She will graduate from college next month.
"I am not scared to die," she said. "Death is the easiest part about AIDS. I have learned there is quality to life and not always quantity. I want to enjoy it all now, take it all in and help others, too."
Had she not donated blood in 1990, she might not have known of her illness for a long time, she said, because she had no symptoms. The Red Cross, as required by law, tested her blood, detected the presence of the virus and, in an interview, gave her the diagnosis.
"I was 24 and extremely devastated," she said. "For a lot of years, I was too depressed to talk about it."
The depression endured, and her T-cell count, which doctors calculate to track the illness, fell to 300. Patients with full-blown AIDS usually have T-cell counts below 200. She disclosed her situation to her immediate family and a few friends.
"Everyone goes through stages," she said. "You get closer to your family and you lose friends, but maybe they weren't meant to be in your life anyway."
She maintained her silence until last year, when she attended a World AIDS Day observance.
"I realized I'm not going so fast; I can live with this," she said. "I can put some light on this disease. People see me and I don't fit their stereotypes for AIDS."
She started talking about AIDS awareness and "now I have so many speaking engagements, I quit my regular job," she said. "Holding secrets in is bad for anybody. Dealing with them works to your advantage."
Her T-cells haven't soared, but her count has stabilized at 450, she said.
"When I started speaking about [the virus], my T-cell count went up," she said. "It has been good therapy."
Her speech is a fairly standard one, but no matter how often she makes it, she gets the jitters, she said.
"I got a 'D' in public speaking," she said. "But, I am so passionate about getting this message out, and I want to have an impact."
She provides alarming statistics such as: 75 percent of newly diagnosed patients are heterosexuals who are not drug users. She hopes the information she provides will help remove the stigma that surrounds the disease.
The free program is open to the public. The speech is at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow in McDaniel Lounge. A question-and-answer period follows. Information: 857-2700.