Marla Polley: Not Your Average Western Heritage Professor

HIV is an acquired virus that attacks your immune system and essentially shuts down its ability to fight infections. Without this, you can catch opportunistic infections, which take advantage of the weakened immune system and can lead to AIDS-related death. AIDS is the diagnosis of end-stage HIV. There is no cure for HIV, but medication is used to treat the symptoms. I talked to Professor Marla Polley on the importance of HIV knowledge on campus and in today’s society.

HC: What do you teach at Carthage?

MP: I teach Western Heritage, and I teach a J-term course called Understanding AIDS.

HC: Why did you decide to teach the course Understanding AIDS?

MP: There are a lot of reasons. When I first started working at Carthage, it was during a time when HIV was considered a death sentence. They would become infected with HIV, and then it would develop into AIDS, and then they would die. I had some personal reasons. People I know have been lost to the disease, and one of them was a favorite teacher of mine. So that made me want to teach about the disease. I felt like there was so much stigma at that time. When he [the teacher] found out that he had AIDS, his family was ashamed, and he ended up dying alone. I couldn’t live with the fact that we lived in a society where someone would have a disease that people get through normal parts of life. I asked myself what I could do, and that’s when I decided that I could teach about it.

HC: You lived through the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. What was that like?

MP: It’s interesting because when this new disease came up, no one knew what it was. It was scary because people were getting sick and then they would die, and no one knew why. There were a lot of rumors going around the country about how you could get it and how you could not get it. And I think when that happens, people go to the lowest common denominator as if they had lost their brain. It’s like when you’re pregnant, and you’re afraid to pump gas, because you want to do everything to save your baby. I was teaching the J-term class at this point, and we would have an HIV positive guest speaker, and then when I would run into the students from that class a few years later and I would have to tell them that the guest speaker had died. No one in their 30s should die.

HC: Have you done any volunteering with HIV/AIDS patients?

MP: I used to volunteer with AIDS-affected kids and their families throughout the 1990s. It’s interesting now because there aren’t really any children being born with HIV because of maternal testing. But I did a lot of play therapy with children back then. I used to do the AIDS Ride every year as well. Now, most of the volunteering that I do is with the students from my class.

Image courtesy of Twenty20

HC: Why should people still be paying attention to HIV/AIDS now, 30 years later?

MP: Because lots of people still die every day from AIDS. It’s not going away. We are at a really critical point now, because we have enough information to know, although there is no cure, we can prevent and treat HIV through medication. We know what we can do, and we just have to do it. A lot of people think that HIV is over, and of course that’s not true. And because people losing their healthcare right now is a huge concern, HIV positive people losing their healthcare will be a public health crisis, because they cannot treat their HIV.

HC: What message do you have for students regarding HIV, STDs or anything else you want them to know?

MP: Knowledge is power. Being informed about what STDs are, how they’re transmitted and where to get tested for them is really important information. Whether or not someone is sexually active, it is good to have that information handy. Communicating with your partners is extremely important. If you’re being intimate with someone, you should be able to have a conversation about protection, even though it’s hard. I think that when you go to a regular medical visit, be honest with your doctor. Be supportive of your friends, and if one of them is knowledgeable about HIV, then spread that knowledge with others. Being open and honest with each other is super important.  

One million people died of an AIDS-related illness in 2016. Help stop the spread of HIV by getting tested every three months. You can receive free HIV and STD testing in Kenosha at Planned Parenthood, AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin and the Kenosha County Health Department. Remember that testing should not be a negative experience. Testing is extremely important to the health of yourself, and the wellbeing of others. Being open and honest with your friends and partners helps reduce the stigma surrounding HIV and STDs, and could save someone’s life.