Personal Perspective: A New Life
I was born in Honduras in a small agricultural mountain village. Due to a rare blood clotting disorder, as a child I needed blood transfusions and came to the U.S. several times through a medical humanitarian relief program. This was facilitated by a woman who was involved in the medical relief program and who returned several times to visit me. She has become like my second mother and I'm eternally grateful that I met her.
I married at 16, got pregnant the following year and had a beautiful baby girl. But she appeared to not be growing properly and was getting sick constantly. The local doctor suggested that we go to San Pedro de Sula's Public Hospital where her blood was drawn for tests. When I returned two weeks later to get the results I was attended to quickly. I was told my child was very sick and that she would need to stay in the ICU. The doctors and nurses at the hospital asked me if I was a "bad woman" (a prostitute), if I had many boyfriends or husbands, if I used drugs -- questions I didn't even understand. I had only one man -- I had never had any other -- and didn't even know what drugs looked like. They were so insistent and angry, pushing me to tell them the truth, as if I wasn't. While everything was happening quickly I was also getting tests done. I was told: "You probably have the same thing your daughter has."
My baby was placed in isolation; I only had a few moments when I was allowed to see her and hold her in my arms. I was told that I couldn't breastfeed her anymore. The nurses appeared to be scared to touch her and went into her room with masks and special outfits. Two weeks later my results came back: I was told that I had HIV, actually AIDS. I had never heard the word before.
The doctors wanted my husband to get tested, but when he arrived he told me he wouldn't. So I went to the hospital alone and was told that my baby had died a few hours ago. I've never felt the way I did that day -- like my heart and soul were ripped out of me. I felt numb and I don't remember anything the doctors told me except that I needed to come back to pick up my baby's body. My husband was waiting for me outside of the hospital and I went to tell him. On the four-hour bus ride back, I had to act as if my baby was alive, pretending to feed her and play with her, since the bus driver would never have allowed us on if he knew she was dead -- it would have been considered bad luck. We buried my baby the next day in the village cemetery, buried her in a wooden box painted white and placed a small white wooden cross and plaque over her grave.
I became depressed, stopped eating, cried all the time and stopped caring about what would happen to me. I was 18 and all I wanted was to die. Months went by and my second mother returned to Honduras. Being a nurse she was able to explain what HIV was and that there was treatment available in the U.S. She suggested that I return to the U.S. with her to get the medical help I needed. Two weeks later I was on a plane. Before leaving I stopped by the cemetery and took the cross that was placed over my baby's tomb with me. I still have that cross and it hangs over my bed. I feel it's protected me and kept me safe.
U.S. Customs knew of my medical condition and knew I had Temporary Protected Status, so I really wasn't asked many questions. I now know that if they knew I was HIV positive I might have not been allowed in. Immediately I was connected with treatment and care at the county hospital. My health improved quickly but I still felt sad and cried. Moreover, I didn't have anyone to speak to at the hospital.
I volunteered at a medical center where my second mother worked. She asked a case manager to speak to me about other services like support groups in Spanish, bereavement counseling, and help regarding my legal status. He mentioned political asylum. If I were to apply, he told me it would be important to prove that people living with HIV in Honduras faced discrimination and persecution. I knew that if I returned I would be in danger. I was the talk of the village, as people had found out I was HIV positive and avoided me. There was a young women who was a prostitute who had been killed because her clients found out she was HIV positive. The community thought I must have been a "bad woman" to have HIV. I missed my family, I was 18 years old, didn't speak English, and I was surviving with my new family's assistance. But I knew if I returned I wouldn't live long without the medications.
We began immigration proceedings a year after I arrived in the U.S. With my case manager's help, I began to take ESL classes at a local college. Two weeks after my immigration case was received I was summoned for a hearing. It was painful to remember what I had been through in Honduras -- as I told my story and shared my experience it felt as if I was reliving all the events. I wasn't able to sleep, eat, and couldn't concentrate much while I waited for the ruling. I felt my life depended on one person's decision and his perception of my situation.
Three weeks later I received a letter stating that my case had been approved, in record time. I was immensely happy.
In the five years since, I have been able to accomplish some things in my life: I completed my ESL classes, I received a degree in Computer Science, I'm healthy, and I am now in a relationship with a man who is HIV negative and knows that I am HIV positive. I don't know much about the man who was my husband in Honduras, all I know is that he still had not tested for HIV the last time he wrote me two years ago. I always think about my daughter and feel her death was avoidable. I have not been back to Honduras since I arrived, and though I'm able to leave the country I feel as if it will be too painful to return to my village. And I am still fearful of how the Honduran community here would react if they knew I was HIV positive.
This article was provided by AIDS Community Research Initiative of America. It is a part of the publication ACRIA Update. Visit ACRIA's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.