Marius: Living With HIV Since the Age of Two
Twenty-three year-old Marius never thought he would reach this age. Now, as long as he can continue his anti-retroviral treatment, he believes he has every chance of finishing his studies, having a family and succeeding in life.
For many young men around the world, watching the World Cup brings enjoyment tinged with nostalgia at their own boyhood dreams of becoming a football player. But for one 23-year-old, the memory has a sadder quality. Marius’s sporting hopes died not as a natural result of the standard passage to adulthood, but because at the age of 12 he found out that he was HIV positive. He made the discovery after being admitted to hospital due to physical deterioration – not told the devastating news by a sympathetic doctor, but when Marius noticed that the mug of tea he was given had ‘HIV’ written on it, and he asked what those three letters meant. He has spent the past decade finding out.
Marius contracted the virus at the age of two and a half, when a nurse visited his home to vaccinate him and his sister against a cold. The nurse used the same needle, a common practice in Romania in those times. His sister was also infected. Despite knowing of his condition, Marius’s grandmother (his primary carer after his family broke up) didn’t take him to the doctor until his health began to decline visibly. Marius was prescribed ARVs (antiretroviral drugs,) but the lack of communication that characterised his diagnosis continued. “I was completely, completely shocked. I had no information, just a few things here and there,” he remembers.
Just 12 years old and without traditional family support structures, Marius struggled to cope. “I was extremely depressed. I would cry at anything. I had wanted very much to become a professional soccer player, but this health deterioration meant I could no longer achieve this goal. Every time I watched a major soccer game, I would be overcome by depression.” In his teens he turned to soft drugs, smoking marijuana but never injecting anything. “All of this because I did not think that I had much life left to live; I never thought that I would reach this age,” says Marius. “I did not think that I could have a future.”
Alongside his illness, Marius was also going through the normal teenage experiences. “At one point, I fell in love. I told the girl that I was HIV positive. She accepted me for who I was, but her parents and her sister did not agree with her decision and put great pressure on her. I could no longer take the pressure and I felt terrible.” But he realised that others had it worse. “I thought, if I feel like this, how must those other individuals feel who were thrown out of their communities? I would hear all sorts of stories; for example, that a certain HIV positive individual was thrown out of his community with stones, that the community members did not allow him to drink water from their fountains for fear that he might infect others. [I heard] that they were thrown out of schools...”
The experience brought Marius into contact with ARAS (the Romanian Association Against AIDS). The association provided him with accommodation after he had to leave home, helped him come off illegal drugs and encouraged him in his treatment. “[Before ARAS] I was a drug user, I was a person who did not know what to do with his life, who had no plans for the future. I think this says it all.”
The turnaround is dramatic. Not only is Marius celebrating having passed his baccalaureate high school exit exam, studying psychology and set to apply for a place at a state university, but he is now working as a volunteer coordinator at Parada, a program for street children. Marius helps them with their reading, writing and math and goes with them to the doctor – giving them the support that he once needed himself. And he is optimistic about his own future too. “I know that as long as I continue the treatment, I have every chance of succeeding in life, having a family for myself and finishing my studies.”
It’s an inspiring story – but the happy ending could be in doubt. Marius has been told by the nurses that funding for the treatment he describes as “truly miraculous” could be jeopardised by the recession. Some of his friends have already had their treatment interrupted. He calls on the decision-makers in the health and interior ministries to draw on their “values and hearts” and not throw away 15 years of work to establish HIV and AIDS treatment in a couple of months. The thought is too much for Marius to bear: “I do not know what I would do now, if I were to go to the doctor and have them say that they no longer have treatment for me. I think it would destroy me completely.”
Instead, he prefers to focus on the progress he has made. “I really did not believe that I would reach this age and this state of well-being: I go to the gym, I feel okay, no-one can tell that I am affected by something [such as HIV]. I work, I go to school, I learn, I do “normal” things as much as possible. Perhaps I do things that an individual with no health problems whatsoever does.”
He may no longer dream of playing at the World Cup, but Marius’s current ambitions will perhaps be even more of an achievement. “[I wish] to have a family and to remain as I am now, with the ability to work, with enthusiasm…”
by Debbie Stowe