Ohio’s Olga Irwin cannot remember the exact day she was diagnosed, but it was late November in 1999 and at the time, she was told she had only about three months to live. Because she was shocked and believed the prognosis, Irwin initially refused treatment.
Thankfully Irwin’s family wouldn’t take that answer to heart. Her mom and sister set about to find her the right doctor and treatment. They finally found a suitable local clinic, but it took Irwin’s husband to drag her kicking and screaming into the place. That was the first time that Irwin was told that she had a chance at a normal life if she kept up her treatments.
“It was not easy at times — most of the time because the side effects of the meds, and the stigma. Also, I was one of the only of handful of women in the support groups I frequented. While there were many groups for men who have sex with men, there were few for women.”
Irwin endured stigma from those who assumed all cisgender women with HIV were either sex workers or drug addicts. But that wasn’t her story.
Because of side effects of HIV medications and her co-morbidities, Irwin had to have quadruple bypass heart surgery by the time she was 38.
Irwin became involved in the now-defunct Ohio AIDS Coalition, a division of Equitas Health, which ceased operations in March of 2017. Her work there began a journey of advocacy that has guided her to this day. In 2012, she first heard of Positive Women Network-USA, and within two years she was co-chairing the Ohio regional chapter. In 2017, she became a policy fellow and a spokesperson for PWN-USA’s steering committee around undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U). Irwin was also awarded the Trailblazer Award at the Equitas Health Institute’s 2017 Transforming Care: LGBTQ & HIV/AIDS Health Equity Conference.
One of the things she’s most proud of this year was protesting the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh. There she was on Capitol Hill — visible in news footage and sitting in senators’ offices. “What I loved the most is being able to actually get there and protest. And since Trump became president, boy have I been protesting. I have even lost track of how many times I’ve been to D.C.!”
“She’s been arrested I think six times in the past year for civil disobedience in D.C. around health care, immigration, and Kavanaugh,” notes Jennie Smith-Camejo, communications director for PWN. “She has several chronic conditions and uses a walker, but she never fails to show up when and where she’s needed. She was our January 2018 Shero of the Month.”
The fact that Irwin made so many trips despite having being diagnosed with an arthritic back and suffering a stroke speaks even more to her tenacity. “I went with mouth, body, and walker and wheelchair. I was always one to speak out and point to things that just are not right and unjust — [I] was taught this as child. I was also taught to never give up rights that many people fought for, died for, and came to America for.”
Irwin, who has a bachelor degree in social work from Youngstown State, is also an award-winning crocheter and cross-stitch artist. In 2019, she’ll finish her training as PWN-USA policy fellow, which is helping her understand more about policy planning and how to affect change.