Seven years ago, Pam Wisniewski stood in her doctor's office and got some news she thought would ruin her life.
"You have genital herpes," a physician's assistant told her.
Wisniewski started sobbing. "I felt like I was going to be alone for the rest of my life," she said. Her dream of marriage to the perfect man and children faded.
"It was devastation at that point," she said.
Today, Wisniewski is living the dream she thought was lost. She and her husband, Mike, are approaching their one-year anniversary and plan on starting a family soon.
And she's helping others make the same transition.
The 29-year-old UNC Charlotte doctorate student moved to Charlotte, N.C., in 2005 and started a herpes and human papillomavirus, or HPV, support group.
She thought it might end up as "a group of 50 people who went out to a movie now and then," she said. Today, Charlotte H has 1,100 members and keeps growing.
At least 45 million people in the United States have contracted Herpes simplex virus, and most don't know it, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During an outbreak, patients can experience painful blisters and sometimes flulike symptoms early on.
The virus is transmitted through kissing, oral sex and intercourse. Herpes can even spread when a couple uses a condom because the skin around the protected genital area could be infected.
About 20 million people have HPV, which causes benign warts in men and women and sometimes cervical cancer in women.
For those living with herpes or HPV, healing comes in numbers.
As support groups grow in Charlotte, members are transforming their experiences into lessons for the newly infected or longtime fighters suffering alone. For them, herpes or HPV aren't life-stoppers.
Here are some of their stories.
Carle: The Diagnosis
Carla, who requested her last name not be used, started dating a man she met in a divorce support group after her 10-year marriage ended.
Both had initially tested negative for sexually transmitted infections. But routine tests don't detect herpes unless a blood test is requested. Her partner, who did not have any symptoms, unknowingly gave her herpes even though they were using condoms.
Carla, 36, got tested for herpes when painful genital blisters erupted. The results were negative and she was sent home with a topical cream, but she tested positive after a second outbreak.
"It was a little bit to deal with coming off a marriage," she said.
Dr. Lena White at the Mecklenburg County, N.C., Health Department said a classic blister has a white head with a red halo around it. By the time many patients visit their doctors, the lesion may have subsided.
"Sometimes doctors don't have enough evidence to make the diagnosis," she said. Carla, an active member of the Charlotte-based Carolina H support group that started in March, is now in a long-term relationship. "The group keeps you grounded," she said.
John: Feeling Trapped
John, 40, contracted herpes from his girlfriend, who hid her secret from him. He had a reaction many have when they're diagnosed: He thought he might as well marry her because no one else would want him. John also asked that his last name not be used.
"At that time, not knowing anything or without doing any research, I thought we were the only two within three states to have herpes," he said. In fact, a lot of people who are diagnosed limit their dating to stay within the herpes community.
John joined a support group after ending his relationship. He made friends quickly and is now dating a Carolina H group member.
"There's someone there that you're going to relate to and who can show you the ropes" on navigating a new life, he said.
Strength In Numbers
For members, support groups are a chance for lessons and friendships. Some meetings are more social; others are educational. Charlotte H and Carolina H have scheduled gatherings or activities a few times a month.
"Sometimes we talk about it maybe one percent of the time," said Kirk, a Carolina H leader. "We talk about our group of friends probably two or three times a day."