Jessica Grobman’s daily dose of five pills represents a lifetime of following a strict regimen.
The medicine is a constant reminder of her condition and that she is not like everybody else.
She missed school once a month to go to the hospital. She had to take what she called “milk medicine” that tasted so bad she gagged. She did not always know she was different growing up. For her, medicine and doctors were the norm.
It wasn’t until a middle school sex education class that she had to deal with the confusion and pain of learning about her condition.
And it was there, for the first time, she realized what it all meant.
Grobman was born with HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus. Her teenage mother did not realize she was infected with the virus until after giving birth.
Out of new HIV infections, 16 percent are among people under the age of 25, according to the Florida Department of Health. About two-thirds of new cases of sexually transmitted infections are represented by people of the same age group.
It was not until a sex education class in middle school that she began to understand she was different.
“I went through a lot of times in my life where I was like, ‘Well, no one will ever love me because this is going to be something that I’m going to have to deal with, and then they’re going to have to deal with, and they’re going to run away because they’re going to be afraid that they’re going to die,’” Grobman said.
Her life was made more difficult by how little research she had done on her own about the disease.
She openly admits to not understanding how her disease was spread, how it was treated or how to prevent a sexual partner from contracting it.
Cory Neering, the vice president of communications at Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast, said comprehensive sex education needs to be a higher priority for schools.
“The bottom line is that teens need accurate, age-appropriate education about healthy relationships and healthy decision making,” Neering said. “I don’t think we have enough of that happening.”
Florida requires a half credit of life management skills in high school, which must include instruction in the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, family life, the benefits of abstinence and the consequences of teen pregnancy.
Neering said one of the biggest problems in Florida is the inconsistency between school districts and how they mandate sex education. He said school principals get a large say in how much sex education their students receive, regardless of school district mandates.
“Even if it’s a school board policy to provide a more comprehensive approach, the principals arbitrarily decide which and when that gets implemented,” Neering said. This means two schools in close proximity may have radically different sex education programs in place.
Grobman said she believes if she had received better sex education in school, she would have understood sooner how to protect her partners. She said while the education she and her classmates received was effective, the two week session was too short for her and her classmates to fully grasp some of the concepts, and certain topics were off-limits.
Kara Ratajczak, a community health educator for Planned Parenthood of South Florida and the Treasure Coast, said she commonly hears students saying they wished they had learned about sexual education issues earlier in their academic careers.
“Just like any other prevention, it should be before exposure happens,” Ratajczak said. “We vaccinate when kids are little, we teach drivers ed before you get behind the wheel of a car and just like any other prevention, sex-ed needs to happen before sex.”
As of Jan. 1, 22 states and the District of Columbia require sex education in public schools.
For Grobman, it’s a continual struggle to keep herself motivated and healthy.
She said depression over her daily reminder of medicine and its side effects, such as fatigue, make her want to stop taking it. During her senior year of high school and first year of college she said she did stop — and it resulted in her health spiraling downward.
She said her illness made her incapable of going to class, working out at the gym or having a job. Without the support of her friends and loved ones, she said she might not have survived.
Now, as 20-year-old elementary education student at the University of Florida, Grobman said she is back on track, healthy and taking her medications. She said she is beginning to realize she can use her disease to help raise awareness in others about the risks of unsafe sex. But she added she fears the potential consequences of being outspoken.
She’s been warned by people she thought she could trust to be careful who she tells about her disease, so she does not tell people until she considers them close friends. She also doesn’t like when people label her as a heroine for something she has no control over.
“I have this disease, this infection, but it doesn’t change anything about me,” Grobman said. “It doesn’t magically make me a better person or a fighter or a stronger human being because I have it. I’m just another person with it.”