Jennifer Vaughan is a skater, surfer, theft survivor, and single mom who went from an AIDS diagnosis to undetectable. Since her diagnosis nearly two years ago, Jennifer has become an outspoken and active advocate for other HIV-positive women.
Despite getting sicker and sicker over the years, her diagnosis was slow in coming — perhaps because as a straight, white, middle-aged, non-drug using mom she didn’t fit the “typical” profile. By the time she was finally diagnosed, she recalls, “My T cell count was at 85, my viral load was 507,000 and I had PCP pneumonia. I have never felt so close to death. This was the sickest I had been in my life. Several nights I went to sleep wondering if I would die in my sleep. I looked and felt like an AIDS patient, and I was.”
Jennifer shared the news of her diagnosis on social media, just as she had shared her seemingly random illnesses and frightening visits to the emergency room over the weeks before getting the news.
“People [were] obviously shocked at first,” she says, but ultimately support poured in. “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt that level of love from everyone.”
Friends she had drifted away from messaged her with words of support. People asked to share her post. Strangers praised her bravery and strength. “I felt like I made the right choice [by coming out as poz],” she says.
Six months after her diagnosis, Jennifer had regained much of her strength due to a daily dose of Triumeq; three drugs in one, delivered in the form of a single lavender pill. She was back at work and back to surfing and skating. The overwhelmingly positive response she received after sharing her diagnosis left her with the feeling she could help others. She decided to post a video about her story on YouTube. Due in part to her matter of fact attitude and honest, no-nonsense style, it went viral.
The first video she posted now has over 335,000 views and her YouTube channel has over 4,400 subscribers. She posts regularly, answering questions from how her ex-husband reacted to the news of her diagnosis to educational queries like, “What is viral load and CD4?”
Her willingness to be so open about her status and her life post-diagnosis has helped many other HIV-positive people around the world and has led Jennifer to a life she never imagined.
“I feel so passionate about the people who first find out, who have that feeling of ‘Where do I go next?’ Because I felt all of that,” she says.
In addition to her YouTube channel, Jennifer shares her daily pill-taking with her followers on Instagram, started a private Facebook group for other HIV-positive women to share their stories and get support, and recently launched JenniferVaughan.org to share her story and connect all of her efforts in one spot. As if that wasn’t enough to keep this advocate, student, skater, surfer, and single mom of three busy—she just partnered with a fellow HIV-positive single mom in Kenya on a new project.
“Anne is incredible, and we bonded over being single, positive moms. She does amazing work with HIV-positive kids in Kenya — kids who were born with HIV,” shares Vaughan.
Together the women are raising funds to purchase sanitary products for the girls in Anne’s teen support group, so they don’t have to miss school when they are on their period because they don’t have tampons or pads.
“Anne and I are just two women — single moms with HIV on different continents — who want to do something that feels big to us, for how small we are,” she says. “We just want to help these teens feel better about a situation they have no control over. If we can make a difference in these kids’s lives, it would mean a lot to us.”
— Jessica Johnson, a freelance writer, blogger, and poet who writes for and about passionate people following their dreams.