3 years ago, while living in Moscow, Russia I was diagnosed with HIV. Today I live in San Francisco, my viral load is undetectable, my CD4 count is at a normal level, and 2 months ago I gave vaginal birth to my healthy, HIV-negative son. I wanted to write this blog post to thank the wonderful people of SFGH, Ward 86, and HIVE who helped me get there, but also as a message of support and encouragement to other women who get diagnosed. HIV is a serious disease, but not a death sentence, life goes on.
Back in Russia there is a real HIV crisis. The official count of people living with HIV recently crossed the 1 million mark, while the unofficial estimates are considerably higher. More than 1% of pregnant women in Russia now have HIV. Yet the public and even the broader medical community remain spectacularly uninformed. Despite the level of the epidemics there is no public education on HIV nor safe practices. The stigma is really bad, the ethics is virtually non-existent. Myths, cliches, and conspiracy theories abound. The idea of a positive person having a happy family is not even considered a possibility.
I got HIV from my sex partner at the time. He hid his positive status from me for 2 years, and knowingly engaged in unprotected sex with me. This was not an exception – I since met several other women in similar situations. Even among the medical professionals HIV-positive people are treated as pariahs, assumed to be criminals, heavy drug users, or sluts. For the entire megapolis of Moscow of 16 million inhabitants there is only one clinic where the people with HIV can be treated. I was denied services in dental clinics. I had a doctor examine me wearing 2 pairs of gloves “for extra protection.” When I had a bone fracture and needed a minor surgery, I was told that there was no clinic in Moscow that would do it. And last but not least, doctors told me that I “must not have children,” that they will likely be born infected, that I will likely die before they grow up.
Now, with the help of Ward 86 and HIVE, I feel like I am living a full life, more grounded and even healthier in some ways than before.
Back in Russia I was not taking HIV medication and had little knowledge of what treatment options existed. The HIV medicine is scarce and expensive there, and is only prescribed to those with very low CD4 counts. After I came to San Francisco, my husband and I decided to go to SFGH because they have so much experience treating HIV. They immediately performed all of the tests, prescribed me the most recent single-pill regimen, and recommended that my (negative) husband got PrEP. Within 2 month my viral load went down to undetectable which sounded like a loud, resounding YES.
Yes I can live a normal life
Yes I can be a normal member of the society
Yes I can have sex with my partner with minimal risk of transmitting the virus
Yes I can get pregnant, naturally
Yes I can give birth, naturally
Yes I can have a healthy baby
Yes I can care for the baby like a normal mother
All I need to do is stick with the regimen, and care for my life and those that are dear to me.
I cannot say enough to express my gratitude to the doctors and the staff at SFGH for everything they have done for me, for my family, for my healthy child. They have been professional and effective. But beyond that, they took care of me and supported me through my transition and pregnancy as if I were a friend, a family member. Thank you!