March 6, 2012
Telling my 10- and 13-year-old daughters that I was HIV-positive was one of the hardest things that I've ever done. It was 1990 -- before antiretroviral medications -- and people thought that HIV was a death sentence.
Until then I had done a poor job of taking care of myself: I was in a 12-step program for drugs and alcohol, I had low self-esteem and even after being diagnosed still didn't like using condoms. So the next hardest thing after telling my daughters my status was living like I really believed what I'd promised: that I would take care of myself so I'd live.
Even though I hadn't gotten pregnant in 10 years of unprotected sex, in October 1993 I conceived. Not much was known about mother-to-child HIV transmission back then. The few people I told in my support group warned that my baby would live in the intensive care unit or perhaps die. One doctor recommended that I terminate the pregnancy. A therapist suggested that I create a pros and cons list, which led me to the same conclusion that the doctor had reached. But after losing a newborn son earlier in life, I knew that my pregnancy was a blessing from God. I worried that it wouldn't happen again. I wanted to have my child.
I was offered the chance to participate in a double-blind clinical study about preventing mother-to-child transmission. Some of us took a placebo; others received the then-only antiviral medication: AZT. I had taken AZT when I was newly diagnosed, but I didn't like the side effects and stopped. But while I was afraid of both the medication and the unknown, I wasn't afraid to love myself by taking care of myself. And by doing so, not only was I fulfilling my promise to my daughters, I stopped needing others to validate my baby's life or my own.
To participate in the clinical trial, I would drive for an hour each way, often through the blinding upstate New York snow. Yet I never missed an appointment. I took advantage of all the information and tests, and my doctors educated me about everything I needed to know, from conception through delivery. Shortly before delivery the doctor disclosed that I was taking AZT, yet my pregnancy had gone perfectly and I hadn't had any side effects. My daughter was born without HIV. She is now 17 years old.
It turns out that I was one of the final participants in the study that proved that mother to child transmission can be reduced if you:
And participating helped me prove that I could care for and love myself -- a choice that now helps many other women have healthy, HIV-negative children.
Del'Rosa Winston is the Bridge Leadership Program associate for SisterLove, a reproductive justice organization in Atlanta that focuses on HIV/AIDS.