Have you ever found yourself Googling or Facebook searching for someone from your past life? For someone you once knew, but as time as passed, you knew not where to find them? Twelve years ago, I sat in a small room of my college commons and heard the personal stories of two individuals who were HIV positive. One was a man named Bill whose body continued to betray him from the intense regimens of medication (Ironically, the side effects of the medications were as unbearable as the symptoms themselves). And the other was a woman named Julie who shared what it was like to become HIV positive from a blood transfusion after the birth of her daughter.
At the time, I had been studying the effects of HIV on the immune system in my medical microbiology class, but this was the first time I had heard from people who were living through it.
Their stories were powerful to me. They were so human, so broken, so honest, so real. The science of the virus morphed into the stories of people. I remember, in particular, the audacity with which Julie spoke. She had said things like,
"It doesn't matter how I contracted HIV, even though people see my circumstance as more innocent than that of others. I don't want to be treated differently. We are all in it together."
"I had 3 children, and I was told I would only have five years to live. But I decided I wasn't going to live like I was dying. I was going to live it fully. "
As a college student searching for purpose, Julie and Bill's stories were the spark that sent me finding stories of other HIV positive people around the globe. It's what led me to Blood:Water.
I have often wondered about Bill and Julie. I mostly wondered if they were still alive. And a year ago, instead of wondering, I did as most of us do when we wonder where in the world someone might be. I took my questions to Google. I grabbed my college notebook to find the last names of Bill and Julie (yes, I still have my college notebooks - ultimate nerdom, I know), and this is what I found:
Bill: The only thing that came up was that he was a member of the Spokane HIV/AIDS Speakers Bureau in Spokane. There was no clear date to ascertain whether or not he was still speaking, or still alive. My search ended there.
Julie: She was also listed in the Spokane HIV/AIDS Speakers Bureau. But different than Bill, there was another link with her name in it - an article from Spokane's Inlander. It was confusing at first because the article was about a guy who was part of a Seattle-based hip hop duo called Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. (Before you all go judge me about not knowing who they were, this was before they had become a national sensation. Okay, you're right. I probably still wouldn't have known).
As I read through the story, it became clear that the Julie I was looking for was Ryan Lewis' mom. And she was alive. And was continuing to relentlessly advocate for HIV/AIDS issues. In an act of serendipity, the article revealed that I already knew Julie's husband, Scott, through our nonprofit circles. I found an old email from him, and I reached out.
Last week, I went to dinner with Julie and Scott in Seattle. I shared with Julie how the courage of her story more than a decade ago was a significant catalyst in my life. That her testimony compelled me to find the testimonies of others.
That the ripple effect meant more than 60,000 HIV positive Africans with a second chance at life and flourishing - and nearly a million people in AIDS-affected communities with clean water. That in the moments when you just don't know if your story means anything past sympathy or inspiration, it can mean so much more.
Take the time to circle back to those who've inspired you - and thank them. And pay attention to the way your own life and story can have a ripple effect beyond your wildest imagination.
ps. When I showed Julie the notebook, I asked about Bill. He, too, is alive. I can't wait to go meet him and thank him, too.
To learn more about Julie's work, go here.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis have partnered with Julie in the 30/30 Project.