Ashes and phone numbers: Stories of struggle of people with HIV

Raped in Dubai

In 1996, Rina, then only 17 years old, worked as a domestic helper in Dubai. There she was raped by her male employer.

“After that, he barred me from going out alone and speaking to other Filipinos. But I got a chance to seek help when a friend of my male employer asked him to allow me to clean his house. I told his friend about the rape, and it was him who told my employer’s wife.

“My employer’s wife had studied in England and has a background in human rights. She helped me escape. She went to the police but was ignored.”

The tragedy did not discourage Rina from again trying her luck abroad. And so in 2000, she underwent medical examination at a hospital in Manila as required of overseas Filipino workers. The result of the blood test stunned her — she had contracted the dreaded Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

At that instant, she knew she got the disease from the employer who raped her.

Adding insult to injury, a nurse at the hospital who knew of her condition asked, “Ilang lalaki ba nakipagsex sa iyo?” (How many men have you had sex with?)

And although she was placed on treatment for free by government, Rina said it pained her that people with HIV like herself have had experienced discrimination and humiliation.

Daughter infected, too

Imee, a registered midwife by profession, also has HIV. She got the disease through her late husband, a seaman.

“I did not believe at once that I have HIV. I told the doctor that maybe my blood sample was swapped with another one.”

Worse for her, her daughter who was born in 2003, was diagnosed in 2004 to be HIV-positive, too.

“The doctors recommended that my daughter undergo trial anti-retroviral treatment. I was afraid for my daughter so instead of her I volunteered to undergo the trial treatment. But when her CD4 count went down, i consented to her treatment.

“I didn’t know I was positive, so I didn’t undergo anti-retroviral treatment when I became pregnant. The children of other HIV-positive mothers turned out negative of the disease because they underwent this treatment when they were pregnant.

“We went to a private hospital. There we were discriminated and placed in isolation. Hospital workers would approach us with their bodies covered like they were astronauts. We moved to San Lazaro Hospital when we ran out of money.”

Imee’s daughter is now 13 years old. “That means I have been living with HIV for 13 years already,” she said.

Imee said she did not tell her child’s school about the girl’s condition for fear she would suffer the discrimination and stigma she has experienced.

What’s more painful to her is that her relatives who know she is HIV-positive are avoiding her. “Masakit (It hurts),” she said trying to hold back emotions.

‘Toro’

He looks brusque, his biceps and flat belly suggesting frequent visits to the gym. But looks can be deceiving. Gabby has been living with HIV since 1990.

He was 18 when he arrived in Manila in 1984 to escape a hard life in Cebu. “I went to Manila with only a single underwear and a hat. Luneta (Rizal Park) was my home for three months. I thought things were cheaper in Manila,” he recalled.

“I worked as dispatcher (barker for passenger vehicles) in Harrison-Mabini. Later, somebody convinced me to work in a bar in Ermita.”

He admitted to performing in “toro” or live sex shows with female partners for three years, from 1984 to 1986. “My body shivered the first time I did it, but I needed money. I earned P800 a night, and in 1984, that amount was already big.”

“Me ilaw sa gitna, di mo alam madami palang tao sa paligid. Nasa sa iyo kung ilan ang kaya mo.” (There was a light in the center, you wouldn’t know there were many people around. It’s up to you how many partners you can handle.)

When Alfredo Lim became mayor of Manila and tried to cleanse the city of sleaze, the bar where Gabby worked was forced to close. He returned to Cebu in 1990.

“I went to Vicente Sotto Memorial Hospital to donate blood to a friend who had to undergo transfusion. But my blood was not used because the doctors said they saw something in it. They didn’t tell me what was wrong, saying a confirmatory test had to be done first.”

In 1992, Gabby married in Cebu. But he was surprised because his wife kept coming back to the hospital for pneumonia, diarrhea and other illnesses. At the Cebu Doctors Hospital she was found to be HIV-positive.

Gabby knew he was the one who infected his wife. “I know she was virgin. If only I was told in 1990 that I have HIV, I wouldn’t have gotten married.”

“In 1994, my wife was brought to San Lazaro Hospital. Sara Jane Salazar (the first Filipino to admit in public that she had HIV/AIDS) was also there.

“The others had become too thin, some had lost their sanity.

Gabby remembered seeing a patient who committed suicide in an unusual manner. “I watched him as he picked up a kettle with hot water, stopped and poured the water on his head and body…He died.”

“Before my wife died in 1997, she told me not to marry again and said she wished to be buried in Cebu.

“Back in Cebu I had to endure the rage and condemnation of his wife’s relatives who blamed him for her fate.

“Tama naman sila kaya tahimik na lang ako.” (They were right so the only thing I could do was to remain silent.)

A death on Christmas Day

Gabby recalled that in the early days of San Lazaro Hospital as a treatment center for people with HIV, they experienced discrimination and humiliation. He said the nurses abhorred their presence and would wear astronaut-like clothing when approaching them.

“They would give us food by pushing it with their feet. They were afraid to come to us.

“Those who died were cremated. There were no names, only phone numbers. It was my job to gather their ashes and place it in a box with the phone numbers.

“Minsan tinatanong ko, ano kaya kung oras ko na, meron kayang maawa sa akin (Sometimes I asked myself, what if my time will come, would somebody take pity on me)?”

As a form of diversion, Gabby engaged in physical activities even if his doctor warned it’s not good for him to get tired.

He found a partner, a woman with HIV who was confined, too, at San Lazaro. “But she died of pneumonia. Her CD4 count decreased because she did not want to undergo anti-retroviral treatment. It was Christmas when she died.”

After one year at San Lazaro, Gabby met Rina, yes, the woman who got HIV from her employer in Dubai who raped her. Love blossomed between them, and in 2003, they got married.

Still, Gabby couldn’t hide his sadness over the discrimination they’ve been subjected to in their own neighborhood.

“Every morning, we’d find the words ‘Mga May AIDS’ outside our house. They would stone our house. That’s why we came out in public. If we keep on hiding, we couldn’t be of help.

“We have two children, a 10-year old girl and a 4-year old boy. Praise the Lord, they’re negative of HIV. They’re the ones who give me strength. I’ll go on with life for them.”

For Rina, prayers have sustained her all these years. “But I don’t go to church, I pray in silence so I can talk to Him. (H. Marcos C. Mordeno/MindaNews)