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.