'Blessed With an Empathetic HIV Doctor' in the 1980s

Rita's Thoughts on the Day She Was Diagnosed HIV Positive

Rita Botha
Rita Botha

There is not much to be said for a normal mid-suburban girl finding the man of her dreams, marrying him at age 21 and having two beautiful daughters by age 28. Except that is me, and that was my life. Until something very unexpected came and turned that life upside-down.

My husband of 10 years was always a very handsome, lean man and the loss of a couple of pounds went unnoticed. Until he got sick. He was horribly, horribly sick with a lung infection and was admitted to hospital. All the normal antibiotics, drips and nursing did nothing to improve his health. He was referred to a bigger hospital for further testing. I remember him waving goodbye to me from the ambulance ... but he arrived at the other hospital in a comatose state. At age 32, how can this be happening to an essentially healthy person? It must be the Big C, and a very aggressive one too? What else could waste away a life like that? I waited for tests to be done and nothing came back positive; other than a severe lung infection, the doctors could not find a reason for his rapidly declining health.

And then Dr Miller happened. He consulted with me and asked me about recent blood transfusions and then ... our sexual preferences. WHAT??? What does that have to do with lung infection? Do we "swing," are we monogamous? At first I was very insulted and upset at this line of questioning, until he told me what his thoughts were. Remember this was in the late '80s and "HIV" and "AIDS" had just started making the headlines, but ignorance was rife! It was a "gay disease" and of course I knew that I had gone from being a very innocent bride to a very faithful wife so there was NO WAY this could affect our perfect lives! How wrong I was!

My hubby was tested for HIV and the news was all bad. He had full-blown AIDS, no immunity and severe pneumocystis and his prognosis was zero for survival. For any mother with young children, the news that her husband is about to die is probably one of the most traumatic experiences, but more was to come. I had to go through the tests as well! Suddenly my confidence at being totally OK was shattered and I got very scared. Still the nightmare continued. My children had to be tested as well, since I had no idea how or when infection could have happened and I may have infected them mother-to-child.

I recall that day I was sitting in hospital holding my husband's hand when the ward sister came to me and said Dr Miller would like to see me. I walked into his rooms and was taken through immediately. I am blessed that my path crossed his as he was specializing in this horrible disease and was also extremely empathetic and did not just spring any news on me. He spoke to me about HIV at length and then asked me the question which froze my insides: "What would you do if you were HIV+?" Then I knew ... and the world just seemed to fall away. "My children? ..." was my first question. "They are absolutely fine, both HIV-." Then I knew everything would be OK. I had a reason to live and remain healthy. And I have God on my side. Two weeks later I buried my husband. I can only guess at how we contracted HIV, but I prefer not to dwell on the thought. He was and will remain the father of my two beautiful children.

Ironically, it was the death of my oldest daughter in a car crash 12 years later that made my body collapse, physically and emotionally. My CD4 fell from a health 950 to 12 and my viral count went from undetected to absolute "telephone numbers." Medically speaking I was also in full-blown AIDS, but suffered not a single symptom, not even night sweats. I was started on ARVs immediately and to this day I am still on exactly the same regimen with absolutely stunning results and have never had any health issues, not even opportunistic infections. I am one of the lucky long-term survivors ...

From Rita: I live in the southern tip of Africa in a small town called Springs. I am 58 years old and work as an accountant for an NGO specializing in peer-to-peer education for people infected with and affected by HIV/AIDS. To relax I love designing/making clothes, painting and a variety of different crafts, and can be found pottering around the garden any spare moment I have. My animals are my babies and I am the proud "mum" of a kitty called Patches, the dog-children called Wiskey, Spikey and Jack, three gorgeous bearded dragons called Sonja, Sonic and Kokkie, a turtle called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart -- or Moze for short -- and a tropical fishtank filled with fishes that swim towards me when I approach the tank. I live an absolutely fulfilling life!

Want to share your own "Day One With HIV" story of finding out your diagnosis? Write out your story (1,000 words or fewer, please!), or film a YouTube video, and email it to editor@thebody.com. In the coming months, we'll be posting readers' "Day One" stories here in our HIV/AIDS Resource Center for the Newly Diagnosed. Read other stories in this series.