Maria, Dominican Republic
Maria is a tall, slim woman with sharp features and an easy smile. You’d never guess her story. She now has one child, though she used to have two. Her 18-month baby died of meningitis two years ago. He had AIDS.
Maria is HIV positive. Infected by her husband, she left him shortly after, but didn’t know her baby was also infected. Throughout the pregnancy, the doctors said the baby could not contract the virus from her but they didn’t test the baby when he was born.
Then, one Christmas, Maria got the shock of her life. Her son was sick and she took him to the hospital. They found a cyst in his stomach and operated right away. Tests on the cyst showed that it was not malignant, but that he had HIV.
The doctors sent Maria and her baby home immediately. "Go home and die," they said. So she went home. Through her husband in the United States, Maria received some medication eventually - AZT for herself and the baby. For the baby it was a case of too little too late.
After his death, Maria took to her room, convinced that she was going to die next. But a phone call from Peggy McEvoy [former Regional Director of UNAIDS] helped. McEvoy, who Maria affectionately calls Mother, encouraged her to form a network to help others in her country. Maria trained as a counsellor, made contact with other HIV positive people and visited health centres and hospitals to help those newly diagnosed. They now have a network of people living with HIV that provides support, help and counselling.
Dieula Jean, Haiti
Dieula Jean, 30 years old, is a mother of four children, including an infant who was born infected. When she tested seropositive in April 1999, she had lived with her husband for 12 years, had never had a relationship with another man other than the father of her children, who had never shown any sign of infidelity. Needless to say she was surprised.
"When I was pregnant with my last baby, I suffered all the time. I never had any problems during my first three pregnancies. To my surprise, I started getting pains and wounds all over my body and venereal infections. When the doctor told me the news, I could not speak nor raise my legs, let alone walk. I felt cold and hot at the same time.
"Then, slowly I started thinking about my children, especially about my baby. I asked myself, "What is happening to me? What will I tell my husband who doesn’t want to hear anything about AIDS?" Many questions came to my mind. Finally, I resigned myself. …I have decided to suffer with serenity."
"Currently," she said, "the illness is eating me away. I cannot obtain the medicines that can reduce the suffering. My only wish is that infected people like myself and many other uninfected people, support me morally."
Dieula admitted that her husband, although always suffering from stomach aches, refuses to get tested and prefers to leave the house to avoid hearing about AIDS.
In 1992, Michelle met an American tourist in Runaway Bay. "He was going through a divorce, we started corresponding and eventually we got close. He would come every summer, every Christmas until finally, he said, ’Michelle, I am coming to Jamaica and I want us to get married.’ Of course I was very happy about that. I never used to think about HIV and AIDS at the time because as far as I was concerned, it was a careless disease and I was not a careless girl, and it was a homosexual thing."
They got married and he returned to the United States where he filed for her to join him. She got her papers, did her medical and went to the Embassy for an interview.
"They [Embassy officials] said I needed to go back to where I did the blood test and find out what was wrong. At that time, I knew I was anaemic, so I was thinking well that was the problem."
But it wasn’t. She was invited to come and see the doctor. The doctor’s choice of words was less than tactful. "Michelle, you have what Magic Johnson has and you are going to die."
Samantha, Trinidad and Tobago
Samantha was diagnosed with HIV at age 17. After completing junior secondary school in 1996, she left her mother’s home to go and live with her father. That did not work out and soon she was on the street with nowhere to go but to her boyfriend.
He was her third sexual encounter, but "I didn’t know anything about sex," she said. "The first two was nothing - just a one-time thing." The third time turned into her first real relationship.
She stayed with her boyfriend for two years and got pregnant at age 16. But she knew that all was not well. Her boyfriend was getting ill too often, having night sweats, "trouble" with his glands and ague. Samantha began to question why they were always having sex in the dark.
Then his mother, sister and cousin died of AIDS in a short time. Samantha ran straight to the doctor, who found she had genital warts and recommended an HIV test. By then Samantha had already given birth to a baby girl. She didn’t get tested until 1998.
After testing positive, Samantha felt as though she was going out of her mind. She became depressed and eventually withdrew completely. Finally, she joined a support group for people living with HIV/AIDS and started to learn how to live. Luckily, her daughter tested negative and now lives at a home for children.
Samantha left her boyfriend and has made a life for herself. She built a three-room house with money she got from working in a restaurant and from her boyfriend. She successfully completed a computer literacy course and plans to become a counsellor."
"To me, HIV is like a test," she said. "People starting to live longer with HIV, you just have to love yourself and be happy."