To be honest, when I first decided to make Brittany HIV positive, I never anticipated the feedback I would get-both positive and negative. My motives were actually pretty simple. I wanted to show a character who had been through hell and had overcome.
Making Brittany HIV positive brought a lot of layers to the character that I have uncovered as the series has gone on. The stigma of this disease has been something I worked very hard at debunking and the lessons readers have taken from reading about her story has been an unexpected bonus.
I didn’t want Brittany to be the poster child for living with HIV just as I didn’t want Stephanie to be the example of someone with Multiple Sclerosis. What I did want to do was show strong women who dealt with the life they were given.
That doesn’t mean I don’t look for ways to push the envelope and ways to educate. I talk about Brittany to my students when they make a comment about HIV or AIDS. They are always surprised when I tell them the main character of my romance series is HIV positive.
It’s unusual. It’s challenging.
It’s who she is.
I have had so much help when it comes to writing Brittany as medically accurate as I can. Obviously, the story is fiction, and much of what happens to her is way over the top. I know that. It’s part of my need to show her strength by putting her through so many obstacles.
Brittany being HIV positive is also a huge part of Tommy. I have always tried to make his reactions realistic and not always perfect. He is a doctor, and that helps, but he is also a man deeply in love with someone who deals with this on a daily basis.
I am always saddened when I have people tell me that they can’t really get behind a romantic heroine who is HIV positive. It’s too unrealistic. It’s too different.
I have to disagree.
We are all fighting battles within. Some of us have can hide it better than others, but we all bring baggage to each and every relationship we form.
Brittany’s is just more out in the open.
On this World AIDS Day, I wanted to share one of my favorite moments from early in “If Only” when Brittany spoke about her disease. It’s something that inspires me and I hope, as each day passes and more and more research is done, one day we will no longer have AIDS.
One day we will find a cure.
It will happen.
“Can I come in?” Tommy asked Brittany as he stood in the doorway to her office. She was completing some paperwork and looked swamped. She lifted her eyes to see him and smiled. “Hi, of course. Did you talk to Julie yet?” she had been thinking about him most of the day, but one thing had led to another and she was worn down about the whole day.
“Nothing new to report with Julie,” he sighed. “Look, I want to apologize to you if you’ll let me,” Tommy began and she looked him in the eye.
“About what?” Brittany asked.
He came in and sat down across the desk from Brittany. “I need to ask you something and I would understand if you didn’t want to answer.”
“Okay, I’m intrigued, but a little nervous,” Brittany smiled at him.
“Why did you decide to become a doctor?” he asked her.
She was a little taken aback. “What do you mean? Why does anyone become a doctor? They want to help people, make the world a better place, all of the clichéd answers,” she narrowed her eyes at him and saw him look away a little. “That’s not what you meant to ask me, is it. Go on; ask what you really want to know,” she spoke with a challenging tone.
Tommy met her stare. “Why did you choose a profession where you would have to tell people about your condition every day? I get wanting to help people, but being an OBGYN, well it doesn’t get more hands-on than that. Doesn’t it bother you to have to explain yourself to everyone?”
Brittany sighed. “Sure it does,” she stood up and walked around the desk to the couch. She sat down and looked at him. “We haven’t known each other for very long, but you seem to strike me as someone with integrity and vision. You have been through something terrible with the loss of your parents and you took it upon yourself to raise your sister and go to medical school and create a life that has meaning and purpose. Why didn’t you just give up?”
He moved to the other end of the couch. “My situation is different.”
“Not really,” she said. “When you meet people, do you have to tell them about your personal issues before treating them? No, but you bring that baggage with you. In every relationship you build, in every patient you treat, in every consult you take, your past is with you. Your experiences have made you the man you are today and you bring those experiences with you to the office just like I do. I hate that I am HIV positive. I hate that I have to tell everyone. I hate that I met a man who I truly enjoy being around and I know in my heart that it can never be anything more. I hate that people are still scared of being infected by being in my presence. I hate that the woman in the ER has a good chance that her baby will have complications because she had to wait for another doctor,” she felt a tear come to her eye. “But do you know what I hate even more?”
“No,” he said, choked up.
“I hate that I have no control over any of that. I can’t control people’s fears, and I am not sure I would want to. It saddens me that when you look at me you see my HIV. It hurts me that when that couple looked at me, they saw a disease, and not a doctor. I can’t control any of that. But do you know what I can do?” she smiled. “I can give Jack and Stephanie the option of a family. I can help the woman who is scared her life is over because of mistakes in her past. I can show the world that I am so much more than my disease and although I may have to shout it from the rooftops before every procedure, I am in a place where I can still do that procedure. I am so thankful that I have opportunities and abilities, and I will not waste another minute feeling sorry for myself. I have done that enough for one lifetime.”
Tommy felt weird. He tried to process everything he had heard. He felt like he wanted to pull her to him and feel her lips on his. He wanted to make it better, but he didn’t know how. He felt powerless to say or do anything. He just stared at her. He opened his mouth to speak, but felt like he had a frog in his throat. “I have to go, sorry,” he stood up and left her alone, staring after him.
Brittany leaned back into the couch. “And there it is. Brittany 0, disease 7015,” she stood up and walked back to her desk. She couldn’t care about this, about him. She just had to do what she always does, move on.
Tommy had the weight of the world on his shoulders. He paced in his office as he went over his colossal failure in Brittany’s office. Two things she had said kept running through his mind. I hate that I met a man who I truly enjoy being around and I know in my heart that it can never be anything more. That’s what she said, and more importantly, she said it saddens me that when you look at me you see my HIV. He was a jumble of thoughts and nerves and he felt like he wanted to punch the wall. No one had ever had the power to make him feel like this. He was scared and excited and angry with himself. He ran his hand through his hair and turned to walk out of his office, he had to do something.
Brittany looked at her watch and realized she had a few more hours before Stephanie’s procedure. She sat down and pulled her long hair up into a ponytail. She took out her lunch and put her iPod in the dock next to her desk. She found the song she liked and began to eat her sandwich and read her magazine. She looked up as her door opened.
Tommy walked in and closed the door. He stood before her, out of breath. Brittany was beyond startled. “Just listen before you throw me out,” he said. “You said your piece and now I need to tell you something,” he spoke fast and with an intensity that surprised even him. “You have to cut me some slack. You can’t be here, at this hospital, and dictate how I react to you. You are irritating and confusing and you make me crazy,” he sat down on her couch and continued. “But you are also wrong. You think I look at you and see your HIV. You think you aren’t able to have a relationship. But you have convinced yourself of this without giving me or anyone else a chance. I am infuriated that some jackass would question your ability to be a doctor. It infuriates me that you just let it happen. I get that this is your issue, but really, it isn’t going to change if the only people who fight against prejudice are those directly affected by it. You didn’t choose to be attacked, you didn’t choose to contract HIV, yet you are alone with the consequences and it isn’t fair. I also don’t know why I care. I don’t know why you get to me and I don’t know how to get through to you. I’m sorry if I didn’t react the way I should have, but I don’t know what’s the right thing to do,” Tommy stopped and sighed. He realized the extent of his rant and turned to look at her.
Brittany sat in silence and wiped the tears, which had fallen down her cheeks. She stood up from her desk and walked over to him. She knelt in front of him and took his hands in hers. “You have nothing to be sorry about. You are right to feel the way you do and I am sorry I gave you the wrong impression about how you need to react. In case you haven’t noticed, I am not the best at expressing my feelings. I think it has been a long few days for you and I think you are on overload,” she stood up and he felt her break their connection. “Look, I am not the one to get involved with. You have so much to offer, Tommy, you need to leave me and go live your life. I am not your problem to fix and I don’t need to be rescued. I am happy with my life,” she lied
Tommy stood up and nodded. “Okay. I get it,” he turned and walked to the door. “But I don’t think you’re happy, and neither am I,” he said and left the office, leaving her alone again.