Melanie Ann Haskin Reese
by Ruby Comer

“Oh well…

Actually, I’m not sighing. Your columnist is introducing this month’s subject, Melanie Reese, Executive Director of OWEL (Older Women Embracing Life), which is pronounced: “Oh Well.”

This busy woman has quite a history. In a nutshell, Melanie boasts, “I’m thriving with HIV for twenty years!” At the age of forty-seven she was diagnosed. It happened as a date rape…Gee, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Photo courtesy M. Reese

In Melanie’s first seven years on this planet, she was a self-proclaimed Army brat. Born in Seattle, she roamed from San Francisco to Japan and then to Virginia. After her Pop served twenty-plus years in the Army, Melanie, her brother, and parents returned to California (Berkeley)—a favorite destination of Melanie’s mom.

Melanie attended the University of California, Berkeley, for two years then at age twenty, moved to Sacramento and transferred to California State University, Sacramento, majoring in art, art history, and journalism. Having a baby during her senior year didn’t allow her to finish her last semester. To enhance her career opportunities, though, she took accounting and in 1983, she landed a bank teller position. Within eleven years, after learning and performing various duties, she was promoted to Vice President of Bank Operations. Well deserved!

Regrettably, this new position was not to last. In 1992, the iconic film, Boyz in the Hood

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

was released to grand fanfare, and Melanie and her family were enthused to see it. They attended the opening day in Sacramento, where they were living, and stood in line a long while to purchase tickets. When they walked into the cinema, the place was jammed!
As the movie played, there was back and forth talking between some audience members, and even shouting at the screen. A fight broke out in the film, and swiftly an actual skirmish erupted in the audience as well. Loud words were exchanged and then screaming and running. Audience members were whizzing by Melanie like rushing buffaloes. It all happened so fast. Melanie was shoved to the floor, which inflicted serious injuries. She went on disability in 1994.

Five years after being disabled, Melanie was targeted in a rescue intervention, removing her from an abusive relationship, on the heels of Melanie’s divorce after twenty-three years of marriage. The interventionists were her mother, sister, daughter, girlfriend, and ex-husband. Within a few days, after packing and getting affairs in order, Melanie was plopped onto a plane by her mother that was flying to Baltimore. Melanie’s daughter picked her up at the Baltimore/Washington International airport and drove her mom to her house.
At the time, Melanie was angry and felt betrayed by everyone involved. Today, she’s grateful for their love and determination that changed the trajectory of her life.

For twenty years Melanie lived with her daughter. Shortly after arriving in Baltimore, Melanie soon became involved in a catfish situation. What partly propelled her to pursue another man was the anger she suffered over her abduction. This new man in Baltimore raped her and her sexual assault unfortunately resulted in an HIV diagnosis. Afterwards, she smartly sought help and learned all she could about the disease. Melanie explored her inner being and immersed herself in the HIV community, including advocating for others and fighting stigma. She spreads the word by telling her own story.

During the height of COVID-19 (September 2020) Melanie moved out of her daughter’s home and rented her own apartment. “My daughter and I are both very happy about that,” exclaims Melanie, who’s thrilled to have her own place.

In one word, Melanie describes herself as “persistent.” That’s undeniable! Proof is in the following achievements. For fourteen years Melanie served as a member of the Greater Baltimore HIV Health Services Planning Council in various leadership capacities, spending her last two years as Planning Council Chair. For five years each, she’s been a part of the HIV Prevention Group for the Maryland Department of Health, as well as Baltimore City Department of Health HIV/AIDS Commission and HIV Prevention Group. She is active with Johns Hopkins Institute of Clinical and Translational Research Community Research Advisory Council and is involved with clinical trials and research studies community/stakeholder advisory boards. Joining OWEL in 2005, Melanie has also addressed HIV issues on Capitol Hill.

You want two more accomplishments? Her kids, Kamila, forty-six, and Rashaad, forty-four.
In her everyday life, Melanie likes to grocery shop, prepare meals, and decorate her new apartment. Her fave color is purple, and her all-time fave sitcom is All in the Family. Oh my, what memories I also have of watching Archie Bunker rant and rave on the groundbreaking seventies series created by Norman Lear, who turns 100 this year! There was no subject or issue of the day that was avoided. Had AIDS been around during that time, they’d have written an episode about the disease.

On a recent afternoon, the lightning rod, Melanie, and I FaceTime. Boy, her vivaciousness is only outdone by her positive attitude.

Ruby Comer: Hello, Baltimore from Los Angeles! Why you’re in John Waters’ land [A&U, July 2011]! [Melanie grins and chuckles.] My god, you’re turning the Big Seven-O this year and you look twenty years younger! What is your secret?
Melanie Anne Haskin Reese: I keep all of my [doctor’s] appointments, take my medications as prescribed, do my best to stay active, and eat well. [She takes a beat.] I listen to my body, take power naps when I can, and make every effort to get seven to eight hours of sleep per night. I also keep my body moisturized!

Good for you! Say, I want to know more about how you became disabled, Melanie—and while attending Boyz in the Hood?!
At that time, gangs were becoming an issue in Sacramento and the movie was about gang activity in South Los Angeles. My children were teenagers in high school and wanted to see the movie on the opening day, so we developed a plan in case something went awry. We planned to drop to the floor, crawl out the nearest exit, and meet at the car. [Melanie’s breathing changes, recalling the trauma.] The children sat up front and my husband and I sat near the back of the theater. A brawl broke out in the audience and I stood up to see if my children followed the directions they were given. Ruby, people were screaming and running! I was sitting in a seat near the aisle and a huge gentleman used my shoulder as a brace to jump over the seats. I spun out into the aisle. I was knocked down and was trampled by people up front running for their lives. My husband realized I wasn’t behind him anymore and came back to pull me up from the floor. He helped me get my bearings, then escorted me to the car. Two years later after physical therapy, surgeries, and more physical therapy, the chronic pain was intense and debilitating. I went on disability.

Holy Mother of God. Melanie! I need to take a moment. Whhhhew. [We both sit, staring at one another. I express sympathy.] Okay…well. Moving on. I wanna know who you consider heroes in the AIDS epidemic?
That’s an easy one, Ruby: Ryan White, Arthur Ashe, women living with HIV, and long-term survivors.

Grand. Tell me about your unfortunate encounter years ago with the man who raped you.
Well, Ruby, I was in a hurry to get into a relationship when I first arrived in Baltimore.
I was still angry about getting plucked from Sacramento. I placed a personal ad in the paper. Each letter and space cost money, so I read many [example ads] to get the hang of it. After seeing him for a short while, one of the individuals that answered the ad date-raped me.

Saving Our Sisters Conference 2018

Oh Melanie, I am so awfully sorry….
I had to go to the doctor for treatment. That’s where I learned that he had lied to me——name, cell number, address where he lived, where he worked. I was in pain physically and emotionally. I got tested for everything, including HIV. My test came back negative. Not really a relief since the antibody buildup was too soon to be captured by a test. What I was able to start immediately was seeing a therapist.

You took care of you. Bravo.
Yes, and I became celibate after that trauma. I was tested at each follow-up visit for care of injuries sustained because it does take time to seroconvert. I socialized in group settings, mostly at church.

What was your immediate reaction when you received your diagnosis?
It was…shock, and fear of dying. I was still in therapy and my therapist helped me process my diagnosis and helped me to sign up with a social worker who would help me get into treatment.

You railed against this disease and succeeded.
I disclosed my status so as to get others to realize that this was not just a gay men’s disease, or an injection drug user’s disease. [I lift my arms to the heavens, celebrating her intention.] I got involved in the Consumer Advisory Board of the Moore Clinic. I learned about Project LEAP and signed up to participate. I began to attend the Ryan White Planning Council meetings and the sub-committee meetings.

2009 DC trip to advocate for Ryan White CARE Act reauthorization

Please elaborate on this, Melanie.
The Ryan White CARE Act Legislation mandated that unaffiliated persons living with HIV and AIDS had to be appointed to the planning council and thirty-three percent of the seats were to be held for them to occupy.

Oh yes, I see.
The planning council was a decision-making body that determined what treatment and care services were to be offered in our Eligible Metropolitan Area (EMA) as well as wrap-around social services and the amount of allocation for each service category. [She’s on a roll, indeed proud of her triumphs.] I spent twelve years as a planning council member holding various leadership positions.

Wow, tell me more.
The first organization outside of my clinic that I connected with was Sisters Together and Reaching (STAR). I attended their “Lunch and Learns,” which provided PLWHA the opportunity to gain knowledge and skills to manage HIV and manage their lives. I was becoming more comfortable with my HIV diagnosis and wanting to live well. Shortly thereafter, I started attending OWEL.

OWEL tabling event for underserved women celebrating Mother’s Day with Anna Folkes, OWEL educator, advocate and speaker

Impressive…quite a résumé of activism, Melanie. What a role model. [She modestly turns her head, and then peacefully smiles.] How have you thrived with HIV for over twenty years?
I have kept all my appointments and fully believed in myself. [I urgently shake my head.] I was forty-seven when I was diagnosed with HIV. I was fifty when I left Kaiser to receive treatment at Johns Hopkins East Medical Campus at the Moore Clinic. I did that because I was determined to live and also determined to prevent anyone else from hearing they were HIV-positive.

Kudos, Ms. Reese! How do you continue to stay healthy?
I do my best to make healthy food choices and limit snacking between meals. I hydrate with water; however I drink Crystal Light lemon iced tea instead of soda. I’ve put on COVID-19 pounds during lockdown. I became sedentary. The only exercise I got was walking to and from the refrigerator, to and from the bathroom, and getting to and from my bed. Prior to COVID-19, I volunteered, attended meetings, went to workshops, participated in community health fairs, and tabling events, attended support groups, sat on panels at conferences and workshops.

…and with the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, how are you being affected?
I now walk six days a week for forty minutes. I want to take yoga and tai chi classes to help with flexibility and balance. I meditate for short periods, though I’d like to become more disciplined. Self-care is extremely important to overall well being. That’s how I stay productive.

What’s your number-one mission at OWEL?
[Melanie clears her throat, planting her hand on her chin.] Our mission is to make sure that everyone knows that women were infected and affected by HIV and AIDS from the start of the epidemic. It should never have been called GRID, Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. [She sits up, sturdily erect, emitting revved energy. Her concerned voice is unshakeable.] To this very day, society still believes that HIV and AIDS is a gay men’s disease. [I nod.] It’s very difficult to inform and educate people that EVERYONE is susceptible to becoming HIV-positive. You must know your HIV status and take safer sex practices seriously when engaging in consensual sexual relationships. [Melanie sways to and fro, deep in thought and then speeds forward.] Everyone has an HIV status! Either you are HIV-negative and need to learn how to stay negative or you are HIV-positive and need to get access to treatment and care, take your medications as prescribed, attend all your medical appointments including seeing a therapist and getting into a support group. We are in End the HIV Epidemic mode; EVERYONE has something they can do to end HIV! OWEL has been talking about aging with HIV since 2004.

Melanie with Montel Williams at Baltimore AIDS Walk 2019

I’m extremely joyful that you are such a driving force, a beacon, Melanie. What do you want readers to know about being older and living with HIV?
First, I want the readers to know that getting older by itself is not easy….

Ha, Ha! Bette Davis said it best, “Aging is not for sissies.”
[Melanie nods eagerly.] Being HIV-positive accelerates the aging process so we experience symptoms much earlier. Aging can begin at fifty. Many ID [infectious disease] doctors don’t know about geriatrics and gerontology, and they may not know about HIV. Those of us aging with HIV didn’t expect to live long enough to experience aging. No one else thought that we would live long enough to age. We are the first cohorts to age with HIV and there are many coming behind us. [She pauses and clicks her tongue.] Stigma is still a barrier to accessing care, retention in care, staying adherent to ART, finding safe affordable housing, and being able to have quality services and resources to live a quality life.

Well spoken. What would you say to long-term survivors?
Long-term survivors or LTS: Realize that you are not alone. Nobody, including ourselves, ever imagined that we would still be here. Advances in research and development have lead to less toxic and better-tolerated medicines, many [are on] one pill a day. What you need to do is continue to take your medication as prescribed. When keeping your appointments with your provider or providers, let them know how you are feeling, any changes that you have noticed since your last visit, if you have fallen, be honest, it could be an indication that something may be occurring. Once you take a fall, the next fall may happen sooner and could result in injuries that could change the quality of your life even if it is temporary.

Hear, hear. Falling is one of the most common ailments of aging, you bet.
We all need to advocate for robust resources to cover services that we will need that aren’t covered currently. [Melanie gently caresses her face and then continues.] Remember that perinatal-infected persons are living longer and are under fifty years of age, but may be experiencing conditions that happen as you age. Think about it, you have had HIV your whole life! Every development stage you were HIV-positive, even in your mother’s womb. What long-term effects will that have on quality of life? Will aging begin earlier than fifty for them?

Melanie celebrates her sixty-ninth birthday.

Dynamite points, Melanie. I read where you once said, “When I get angry, I get active.” I love that! Where did that spirit come from?
From my ancestors and my parents who had to fight to be treated as whole human beings, deserving of civil rights and dignity while pursuing upward mobility. I could write a whole dissertation on this. I use my voice, my face, my written words, and my presence to make change and to educate.

You sure do….You’ve been to Capitol Hill many times. What did you address?
I went with a grass-roots advocacy group, LifeLinc of Maryland. [She ponders, glancing upward.] The most memorable time was when we were invited to the House Chamber by Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes discussing the Reauthorization of the Ryan White CARE Act, continuing to make planning councils mandatory with thirty-three percent being non-affiliated consumers. Another time on the Hill, was about ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program) across the U.S. covering all medications not just HIV meds to keep all people with HIV healthy and productive.

I know you’ve lost numerous people to this dreadful disease….
I have lost many friends, Ruby, fellow advocates, and health planners along the years. Each loss was painful and I cling to the wonderful memories I shared with each of them. [She halts.] Anyone that has HIV and AIDS and transitions, whether I personally knew them or not, truly affects me in a painful way. It pushes me to get more vocal, wanting everyone to get involved in…Ending The HIV Epidemic.

Melanie, I know you’re a busy lady and I appreciate these moments with you. Tell me what motto you live by?
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table—bring a folding chair,” by Shirley Chisholm.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].