In May, when Yvette Brown went to New York’s Westchester Oral & Maxillofacial Associates for an emergency oral surgery, she expected to be treated like she always had—with respect and professionalism. Instead, Brown claims that dentist Dr. Benjamin Kur treated her like a second-class citizen.
Why? Merely because Brown is HIV-positive.
“I was still woozy from the anesthetics when he pulled me into a back room and asked me if I was HIV-positive. When I told him I was, he instantly called me ‘disgusting’ and a “criminal” for not telling him that I was positive,” Brown recently told HelloBeautiful.
“He also threatened to call my insurance company to drop me. Then kicked me out of the office in front of everyone.”
Brown is clear: Her HIV-status was irrelevant because she isn’t legally obligated to divulge that information and that medical professionals should be taking the necessary safety precautions, not just to protect themselves, but to protect their patients. In addition, Brown is undetectable, which means that the viral load in her blood cannot be traced, and because of that, she poses an extremely low—if any at all—risk of transmitting the virus to anyone, including Kur and his staff.
“I’ve been living with HIV since 1993 and never has a medical professional been so disrespectful. If I wasn’t a Black woman living with HIV, Dr. Kur never would have treated me like less of a person,” the 48-year-old wife and mother told HB.
Now, Brown is fighting back with the help of Lambda Legal, a non-profit organization that provides legal assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ individuals. Last month, Brown and her attorney filed a lawsuit against Kur stating he violated numerous federal and state laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, Rehabilitation Act and the Affordable Care Act.
Prior this incident, Brown admitted that she had been a “private person” and that only a “handful of people” knew of her HIV status. But Brown realized, she couldn’t longer remain silent.
“I’m standing up today because I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said.
We sat down with Brown to talk about her experiences living with HIV, her pending lawsuit and how coming out publicly has impacted her life for the better.
HB: Before we talk about the lawsuit, let’s talk about when you were first diagnosed with HIV. Did you ever think that you were at risk?
YB: Not at all. I got tested because I was a home care nurse and I needed clearance for a new job that required a blood test. When they called me in I was worried, but I never expected to be told that I had HIV. I was only 25 years old and I was devastated.
I admit that I literally thought that was it for me. And I was preparing for the end—got life insurance and a living will. And in terms of my health, I wasn’t really getting support or seeing a doctor. But thankfully after a while I realized that dying wasn’t God’s intention for me and I got myself back on track. Over the years, thanks to my medication, I’m doing well and I am undetectable.
HB: Since you’ve been diagnosed a lot has changed. You’re married now.
YB: Yes! I met my husband after I was diagnosed—a mutual friend introduced us. And he knew about my situation and he wasn’t scared. He saw that I was on top of my health and was educated about the disease.
I was just telling him the other day how lucky am I to have met someone who genuinely loves me. How many people can say that?
HB: And you have children and grandchildren.
YB: I do. There were doctors who were concerned that if I got pregnant the baby could become infected, but I had this wonderful nurse that told me that I could have still have children and they could be HIV-negative. She told me about how the meds worked and what the process would look like. And my children are all negative!
HB: So briefly walk us through what happened that day in Dr. Kur’s office?
YB: I was eating peanut brittle and my tooth cracked—I was in so much pain. My current dentist couldn’t see me for few months, so they referred me to a different dentist. I went in to see Dr. Kur, they performed a few X-rays and gave me pre-op and post-op instructions because I needed to get a few teeth pulled.
On the day of surgery, I brought a girlfriend with me and it went fine. But when I woke up, they brought me into this room with the doctor and a few of his assistants. I was groggy, so all I could see was his silhouette. With his arms crossed, he asked me, “Ms. Brown are you HIV positive?”
I said, “Yes,” and then his whole tone changed. He said, ”Are you kidding me? You disgust me! You’re a bad person! You’re a criminal!” He even threatened to call my insurance company and have me dropped.
Afterwards, he basically kicked me out of the office. I could barely walk and the assistants were trying to help, but he told them to leave me alone. With my friend helping me stand, I kept asking for my receipts and paperwork and he kept saying, “She’s a bad lady and she’s going to jail.” He didn’t even give me a prescription for painkillers afterwards.
HB: That’s so awful.
YB: I was so humiliated and shocked. I couldn’t believe that someone who had taken an oath to take care of people would speak to me like that. Luckily for me, since I used to work in the health field, I knew he was wrong. But to get confirmation, I called a friend and she said he definitely violated my rights and that I needed to file a complaint. So I filed three of them, but nothing really happened. So I started looking for lawyers, but no one really wanted to take my case.
So one day, my mother and I were talking about it and she told me that I was looking for the wrong kind of lawyer. She suggested I search for lawyers that specialize in LGBT/HIV issues. That’s when I found Lambda Legal and we filed a discrimination lawsuit against Dr. Kur.
HB: Filing this lawsuit meant having to come out publicly as being HIV-positive. You work at the New York City Department of Sanitation, were you worried about other people were going to think?
YB: I was worried and not because I’m ashamed of who I am, but just concerned about how it would affect my family and how people would treat me at the job—especially since my co-workers didn’t know about my situation. Over Thanksgiving, a newspaper article came out about the lawsuit, and I got a lot of text messages asking if I was OK and how much they supported me. And at work, there were a few people who were talking saying negative things, but for the most part there was so much love and it felt good. I also used this as an opportunity to educate people about the disease and let everyone know that I am healthy and doing fine.
I realize now that I had been holding myself back because I didn’t want to be in the limelight, but it feels amazing to have all of this support. And I am glad that I am out there telling my story.
HB: Why was filing this lawsuit so important?
YB: Mostly, I just wanted him to know that I was not the one and that you cannot treat people like this. I want for other people—regardless of their HIV status—to know that no doctor should discriminate against you. And finally, I hope that by telling my story, others will be encouraged to get tested, know their status and understand that there are a lot of people surviving and living long healthy lives with HIV.
***This interview was edited for clarity and length.