Tommy Brown is a warrior in every sense of the word. Since he was diagnosed with HIV at 22, the now 30-year-old producer and activist has made it his life’s mission to not only tell his story, but to give others courage to tell theirs, and to “no matter what, never give up” living life to the fullest.
A Jackson, Miss. native, Brown has chosen to live blessing-to-blessing, rather than allowing stigmas rule his life. A former project coordinator for the Health Relationships Study at My Brother’s Keeper, his new production company, PrinceT Productions, is continuing to build up steam.
In addition to being chosen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be part of its HIV Treatment Works Campaign (see banner below), Brown continues to serve his local community by taking part in discussions relating to HIV and mentorship.
Discovering his status was anything but smooth
“My mom called to say I had received a letter from the Health Department stating they wanted me to come in for more testing because my recent test was inconclusive,” he told Plus last year. “Within that year they ran several tests: The first was positive, the second was negative, the third was positive, and the last test, which was sent to D.C., was negative. They ended up sending me away with a ‘clean bill of health.’ It wasn't until 2013 I found out I was actually HIV-positive.”
The experience proved to be a valuable lesson for Brown, who has always been adherent with doctor visits and treatment regimens. That would be put to the test two years later when he ended up in jail and was withheld his HIV medication for “one month, two weeks, and five days.”
"I was falsely jailed because of someone else, and in that time I informed the center that I was HIV-positive and that I had to take my meds every day,” Brown shares.
He was told at the time that "it cost the prison too much money for the medication."
As a result, Brown, who says he was undetectable upon entering the jail, was unable to get proper treatment to remain so. Upon release, he returned to his proper regimen but due to the emotional stress in the following weeks, he admits he would skip meals while taking his medication (a requirement for the meds he was using at the time).
According to his doctor, because Brown had been living a healthy life and was extremely adherent to his meds before he went to jail, his viral load didn’t actually increase to the point of turning him detectable again (a rare scenario, which is why it’s always recommended to never skip treatment). However, Brown’s doctor did notice that his T cells were lower than usual.
“He basically informed me that since I wasn’t getting proper foods [required] with my medication that he wanted to switch me over to [a drug] that doesn’t require me to intake food with the medication,” Brown says. “That way, I can maintain my daily life and my undetectable viral load.”
The experience led Brown to speak on behalf of the importance of adherence, especially to those who are newly diagnosed and are unclear of how HIV treatment works. Where he’s from in the South, it’s especially needed. Jackson has the nation’s highest rate of HIV-positive gay and bisexual men: 40 percent. Columbia, S.C.; El Paso, Texas; Augusta, Ga.; and Baton Rouge, La. follow quickly behind, according to a report by The New York Times.
These days, Brown hopes his story inspires other poz folks to be vigilant about treatment, resistance, and the need to sometimes switch medications.
“If that particular medication isn’t working for you, don’t give up and don’t give in,” he says. “There are several ways to get you undetectable and keep you undetectable. After all, that is the ultimate goal here.”