Brryan Jackson contracted HIV when he was just 11 months old, but it took another four years for doctors to correctly diagnose him because he had none of the usual risk factors.
That’s because the Missouri native wasn’t infected in any normal way: he was injected with a vial of infected blood by his own father in an attempt to avoid paying child support. Now he’s 25, healthy, and running his own HIV charity, Hope Is Vital.
His ordeal began when he was hospitalised following an asthma attack as a baby. His mother, Jennifer Jackson, and father, Brian Stewart, were already living apart after he’d become verbally and physically abusive towards her and Brryan.
“He used to say things like, ‘Your child’s not going to live beyond the age of five,’ and ‘When I leave you, I’m not going to leave any ties behind,’” Brryan told the BBC.
It was a surprise when Stewart appeared at the hospital and asked to see his son, whose paternity he’d begun to question. Even so, Brryan’s mother didn’t think anything of it when he suggested she go get herself a drink, leaving him alone with his son for 15 minutes.
A phlebotomist, Stewart worked as a blood tester in a laboratory, and began secretly taking home samples of infected blood.
“He used to joke around with colleagues saying, ‘If I wanted to infect someone with one of these viruses they’d never even know what hit them,’” Brryan said.
One of those samples ended up in his veins instead.
It took four years before doctors diagnosed him with “full-blown AIDS,” after years of tests and procedures to understand why he seemed to be on the verge of death.
“They wanted me to have as normal a life as I could. So they gave me five months to live and sent me home.”
He was given just five months to live, and the barrage of treatment – at one point as many as 23 different oral medications – cost him 70% of his hearing.
Despite that, he’s still alive, strong, and healthy today.
“I’m as healthy as a horse! Healthier than a horse! I am beyond that! I might be slightly chunky, but I’d still consider myself a good athlete,” he said.
“Right now my T-cell count is above average. That gives me virtually no chance of passing the virus on. I’ve gone from taking 23 pills a day to taking one. I don’t know what I’ve been doing but now my HIV status is ‘undetectable’.
“I still have AIDS, though. Once an HIV diagnosis, always an HIV diagnosis.”
Born Brian Stewart Jr., he altered the spelling of his first name and adopted his mother’s surname to distance himself from his father, who has so far served more than 15 years in prison for his crime.
Earlier this year, Brryan spoke at his father’s latest parole hearing, urging the court to deny him release. The judge agreed.
“All I could do at the hearing was read my statement and pray and hope justice is done. But to have that verdict is very empowering. There have been times I’ve woken up from nightmares, scared he might come back to finish the job. I may have forgiven him, but even in forgiveness, I believe you have to pay the consequences.”
Living with the virus from such a young age hasn’t been easy. He missed years of school, and when he did attend, he was quickly ostracised, picking up nicknames like ‘AIDS boy, gay boy’ and fighting misunderstandings about how HIV could be spread.
“Back in the ’90s, people thought back then you could get AIDS from a toilet seat. I once read a college textbook that said you could get HIV through eye contact,” he said.
Now he heads up his own charity, Hope Is Vital, and is more concerned with looking to the future than dwelling on the past.
“I would love to be a dad. A dad is one of the things in life I think I am meant to be. I’d like to root my kids in hope. I want to give them a vision that the world is a peaceful place and I am always going to be there to protect them. Through bad things, great things are possible.”