Finding Her Voice

June 24, 2013—This month, public health activist Nina Martinez (C’05) celebrated her 30th birthday. She has been living with HIV since she was six weeks old, and she is “writing the book on how long life can be” for a person who is HIV-positive.

Martinez contracted the virus in 1983, shortly after she and her twin sister were born twelve weeks prematurely at two and a half pounds each. Medical complications forced doctors to take so many blood samples that both babies became anemic. As a result, Martinez and her sister required blood transfusions.

“It would be discovered later that I was the only one that contracted HIV from the transfusions,” said Martinez, who received blood from a hospital in San Francisco while her sister remained in San Jose for treatment.

Since Martinez was a happy and healthy child, no one suspected she had been infected. It was only through coincidence, eight years after the blood transfusion, that she was diagnosed in time to save her life.

“I had what people know as crossed eyes. I needed a surgery at age eight to correct the muscle imbalance,” Martinez explained. “At the hospital where they did the surgery, they tested patients 15 years old and over [for HIV], but they didn’t normally test patients under [that age]. Someone mixed up the paperwork and that’s how I was tested.

“If I had not had that test, I would probably be like every other young person thinking, ‘Well I don’t look like I have HIV,’” she continued. “I’m an example of what screening can do.”

After the diagnosis, Martinez was urgently put on a children’s pill regimen, since common knowledge then held that a person who was HIV-positive could live about 10 years without treatment. “I took medication four times a day, and had a dose at 3 a.m. in the middle of the night,” she recalled.

Eventually, she learned to cope with and grow from the diagnosis. Her family members educated themselves on the virus, which in the United States in the 1990s was still largely associated with drug users and homosexual men. Martinez, meanwhile, found that peers treated her normally as long as she appeared comfortable in her own skin.

“I can’t say that I encountered a lot of misconceptions or stigma because I didn’t learn to make it something that I was ashamed of and I didn’t learn it was something that I should hide,” said Martinez, who as a child believed she was related to basketball legend Magic Johnson, the only other HIV-positive person she knew to exist. “I’ve always been very open, and I think that makes it easier for other people to understand it as well as accept it.”

Martinez brought this spirit of practical engagement with her to Georgetown, where she majored in mathematics and worked with Health Education Services to promote safety and responsibility on the Georgetown campus.

She was drawn to the Hilltop partially because Washington, DC, was the first city in which she had received medical care following her diagnosis in 1991. She also matriculated because it was at the National Youth Leadership Forum on Medicine, held at Georgetown in the summer before her senior year in high school, that she met another person living with HIV for the first time.

As an undergraduate, Martinez participated in the Georgetown University AIDS Coalition, a student group through the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service that aims to demystify HIV/AIDS and to support people living with the disease in Washington, DC. Additionally, she volunteered for medical research studies at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

“That was my way of giving back to the science that helped me get not only to college but through college,” she said.

For the first few years after she graduated, Martinez worked with Hope’s Voice, an organization focused on raising HIV/AIDS awareness that visited the Hilltop in her senior year. Martinez spoke to college students nationwide about the importance of finding support, testing, and their own courage if they believed they might be HIV-positive: a post-infection message that is absent from most commercials and literature, she said.

Most recently, Martinez has worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a public health analyst in the Division of STD Prevention.

“My roots for social justice started at Georgetown and stayed through thereafter, either speaking at colleges and universities or through my public health work,” she said. “That’s something I’ve been proud of.”

—Brittany Coombs