I am 28. White. A Female. And a former Peace Corps Volunteer. I am HIV Positive. This is my story of how a few months, a few people, and a few events in Zambia changed me and my life forever. This is the story of how I contracted HIV and brought my Peace Corps Journey to a crashing halt... and how I am working now to pick up and put back together the pieces of my life as a newly diagnosed person living with HIV. This was not the journey I had originally planned... my path has traumatically and dramatically changed... but it is the one I am on now. There is no going back. There is only forward. I welcome you to follow along with me as I attempt to explore this new life ahead of me, whether you are someone from the Peace Corps community, or someone living with HIV. I welcome your comments, questions, suggestions, and opinions. Let us go forward together. To start from the beginning, click here He Gave Me More Than A Bracelet.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Mother's Story

When Jessica asked if I would do a guest entry on her blog, I immediately said yes, then came the hard part, actually sitting down to write my thoughts and feelings.

When Jessica decided to join the Peace Corps, I was probably as excited as she was. We started researching all kinds of information about the country that she was going to, we bought all kinds of things she was going to need, we got her packed up and off she went. Sure I knew that there would be dangers, but I never REALLY considered HIV to be one of those dangers, and I sure didn’t expect my kid to come home with a lifelong illness.

Off she flew to Zambia, I wished I was with her. Right away she got a Zambian cell phone, I added international talk and text to my plan and learned how to text. We were able to communicate every day, which really helped to ease my mind. Everything was going great, I was learning so much about life in Zambia (I asked endless questions). Jessica seemed to be settling in, she was making headway in her schools, she was making friends and best of all she wasn’t starving. I missed her terribly, surprisingly I got very good at texting, sending cards, letters and packages.

That all changed September 6, 2011. We were texting, and she said her eyes really hurt and she had a bad headache, within hours she had a really high fever and was getting very sick. She called the nurse for advice, the nurse said to test for malaria, and start taking that medicine. I felt totally helpless, at that point all I could do was stay positive for her and keep texting with her. The morning of September 8th they picked her up from her hut and took her to the hospital in Lusaka. I felt better about that, but she was still getting sicker. They were doing test after test but had no answers. The Peace Corps people did a great job of keeping us in contact, Jessica was running out of minutes on her phone and they made sure to get her some so that we wouldn’t lose contact. Very quickly the doctors decided to fly her to South Africa.

On September 14th our world came to a crashing halt with the words “mom I ruined my life, I have HIV”. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t stop crying. I felt angry at the world. All I wanted to do was get on a plane and go hug my Jessica, my baby. I was so afraid that I was going to lose my daughter.

The doctors in South Africa were giving her a lot of information to read. She was able to call me every day. Every day we had more and more information to share with each other. She was reading what the Dr.’s were giving her and I was reading anything and everything I could find on the internet. I had read about people living long fairly healthy, fairly normal lives. Little by little I felt less devastated by her diagnosis, yet we had this gigantic secret, that only she and I knew at that time.

Jessica knew that I would need to be able to talk about her diagnosis, so she told me that I could tell someone (she suggested our neighbor and very good friend). I didn’t tell my friend right away though, I didn’t want to burden my friend with this horrible secret. But I really needed someone to talk to, so sitting side by side on a sunny beach in south Florida, I told my friend Jessica’s story. We talked, cried, and laughed and in the end decided that Jessica would still be Jessica. I told her all I had learned about HIV. It felt really good to have someone I could talk to.

In my daily life, I was having a fairly hard time coping. I made a couple of big mistakes at work. I couldn’t stand listening to everyone’s little petty problems when I had such an enormous problem in my life. People kept asking about Jessica and I just kept saying she was getting better and, no they didn’t know yet what was wrong with her.

When I knew that she was being flown to Washington DC, I told my oldest daughter that her sister was coming home. At that point my oldest really pushed, what’s wrong with my sister, she knew that the peace corps wouldn’t send her sister home without it being really serious. I told her that her sister had HIV. Her and her husband were immediately supportive. They wanted to know everything I had learned already, they wanted to know if they could do anything. My next call was to my mother. How do you tell your mother, Jessica’s grandmother, that she was coming home from Africa with HIV. My mother was very upset, overwhelmed and scared. She didn’t have much knowledge about HIV and she didn’t like having a big secret . She didn’t know what it would mean for Jessica and all of us in the future.

Jessica chose not to tell her brother for the time being, that was very hard for me because I did not like having to keep a secret like that from my son.

When Jessica decided, on Christmas Eve, to go public with Big Secret, I was all for it. I didn’t like having a huge secret like HIV any more than she did. I could see her getting more and more depressed, and it was harder and harder to be around people that didn’t know. The task fell to me to tell a few people, before the blog went live, the hardest by far was my son. He was so very, very upset. He wasn’t totally supportive of his sister’s peacecorps adventure, he was afraid something bad would happen to her and now his fears had come true.

Jessica asked what advice I had for other PCVs and people in general. I guess that would be keep talking about HIV. Keep sharing Jessica’s story. Keep getting educated about HIV. Talk openly about HIV, don’t hide it in a closet that only increases the stigma, fear and ignorance surrounding this disease.

Jessica I love you with all of my heart, I am so proud of you, and I know that you have so much to share with the world.

Jessica’s Mom


  1. I haven't spoken with Jessica since middle school, although we are friends on facebook and the only thought that comes to mind at this moment is "thank you". Thank you for supporting such a wonderful person during the most difficult time of her life. The initial shock, her words "mom I ruined my life, I have HIV”, I had to stop reading for a few moments as my heart ached for you both. I have done things my mother would not be proud of, things she still doesn't know but this 'secret' had to be told and the fear and anger she must have been feeling... I just understand the pain of feeling you have disappointed the most important person in your life. You are a wonderful mother, please stay strong for Jessica. Blessings and peace be with you and your family.

  2. Beautifully said, Laura. Thank you for sharing your perspective. :)

  3. You are a strong woman, my friend, and you have raised a strong daughter. I love you both. Michele

  4. Jess and Laura, you have touched my heart again and again with your courage and your love. Keep it up! Laura, you are absolutely right: Let's all work to remove the stigma and cure the ignorance that surrounds HIV.

  5. You know I have always been your biggest fan Laura...loving and supporting you throughout your life. I have always been amazed at your strength and courage. You raised 3 awesome, beautiful, smart kids on your own...you have a lot to be proud of! I love you sis!


  6. You've always been such a strong woman Laura and like a second mom to
    Me! Jess is and always will be like a sister to me. Love you guys so very much and will be here through it all every step of the way.
    Love you!!!

  7. To Laura & Jessica,

    Like mother, like daughter... full of grace, honesty, strength, and courage...as well as beautiful blue eyes and big, warm smiles!

    Thank you both for sharing your stories; this blog has brought me to tears many times. Sending you both a hug.

    Warm regards,
    A Concerned reader, Mary

  8. Laura and Jess,

    You two are an inspiration to so many people. Laura you are exactly the mom that I hope that I can be to the boys. I have watched the amazing relationship that you two have over the years and always been inspired by you both. Keep your heads up and know that we are all behind you and support you every step of the way.

    Jess you are the sweetest person I have ever known. You are a strong person with a big heart and you will never be alone during this. Your blog is great and I am continuing to spread your word to as may people that will listen. I know you will come out on top of this. I love you both and can't wat till I see you both.

    Christina C.

  9. Laura- thank you for posting. I am also a Peace Corps Parent. I have been thinking of you since first reading Jessica's blog. You have raised a very brave, strong young woman. You, Jessica and your family are in my prayers. Know that you have people all over the world hoping for the best for all of you. Take care ~Katie

  10. To my 5th daughter Jessica and to the the second mother of my girls, Laura, to my 3 daughters growing up, God will see you through. Words cannot descibe the experience and memories meeting Laura before my oldest daughter was born and Jessica was starting to walk!! I'm with you in prayer, spirit, and a phone call away. God Bless. Don Heinrichs

  11. I lived in Zambia 2008-2010 (although not PVC) and your blog vividly connects with me. This post brought me to tears! You are both beautiful writers and your love and support for one another is truly inspiring. I thank you for sharing your story with the public. Stay strong. My thoughts and prayers are with you. - Jasmine

  12. This blog has done so much to remove the stigma from HIV. Although some comments have been negative, it has been just overwhelming the support outpouring. Jessica, you made a very courageous decision to go public, but I am so gratified that most of the comments have been positive and supportive. I will continue to read and to keep you and your Mom in my prayers.

  13. Thanks Jessica's Mom for your comments.
    I know it's tough. My Mom lost 15 pounds from stress when I first told her my HIV status. (She of course joked how she was meaning to loose some weight) (That was 20 years ago -- I waited until I developed AIDS before telling her, since I didn't want to worry her).

    As difficult as it's been, watching my Mom grow in so many wonderful ways has been incredible. The truth is, she would have never had that opportunity otherwise. Too often, we live out our lives in small little comfortable boxes. If we have bravery and courage, when tragedy strikes, it gives us a whole new opportunity to see and experience the world and ways we never would have otherwise. Yes, many people prefer to go through their lives blindly, preferring to never open up to the wider experience of what being human is all about, but then we miss out on so much.
    The best birthday card my Mom ever sent me was several years ago. It involved a life change over 25 years ago when I disclosed to her that I was gay. She wrote, "Maybe being gay wasn't the best thing to happen to you, but it was the best thing to happen to me." What she meant was it opened her eyes up to a wider world she would have missed otherwise. Sure, it was a tough journey and it took her years to grow, so that she would eventually stand up in public and proudly say she has a gay son, but she learned so much in the process.

    HIV gives us all the same opportunity to grow into our humanity, if we will only allow ourselves to go on that journey.