Life is full of surprises, some of which can be life changing. January 20, 1995 is the day I found out I was HIV positive. When I was given my results, I thought it must be a mistake. I had stepped into a small clinic for what I thought would be a routine test. The realization of what was happening was almost too much to comprehend. Unfortunately, the clinic did not have any open follow up appointments available. The soonest was two months away.
I was sent home that snowy January day with more questions than I knew to begin to ask. About a week later, I came to the realization I couldn’t have children. I say this because, at the time, not only did I think my diagnosis was a death sentence, but I thought bringing a healthy child into the situation was just not possible.
In the meantime while I was waiting for the day of my appointment to arrive, I heard about another clinic which specialized in HIV services. Based on all I had heard and the fact I was able to get in I decided to go there. I received great care and learned more about my diagnosis.
During this time I also received another life changing surprise: I found out I was pregnant. My first phone call however was not to family or friends but to an AIDS hotline to see what information they could provide about being HIV positive and pregnant. At that time they did not have much information on HIV and pregnancy but did share some studies about treatments that increased the chances of having a healthy child from 75% to about 90% (today, treatment and care increase the chance to over 99%). My next phone call was to the clinic where I was being seen to schedule an appointment to find out what the next steps would be.
When I went in for my appointment we discussed that at that time they did not have an in-house OBGYN. However they did have someone who they referred patients to. I went in to see this doctor who confirmed my pregnancy: I was 9 weeks pregnant. Then she also told me she would not be taking me as a patient; she did not want to treat me because of my HIV status. I was embarrassed and disheartened. But she referred me to a hospital. I was scared, anxious and excited about the prospect of a new doctor. I knew I had to keep trying to find someone who could help me.
I went to my appointment which included my first ultrasound. During my intake, the nurse asked me how I could do this to my child and why I didn’t just have an abortion. The first question I had asked myself countless times. The second I just couldn’t consider. I have always been a proponent of a woman’s right to choose. When faced with it, it just wasn’t the choice for me.
They took me in for my ultrasound and there on the monitor was my son. I could have sworn he waved at me. The doctor came in shortly after and asked me if I had any questions. At this point, that was all I had. Seeing my concern and frustration with the process I had been through, she thankfully referred me to yet another hospital she believed could help me. It was Northwestern Memorial Hospital where I met Dr. Pat Garcia and the Women’s Clinic nurse Donna Stanislawski. In addition to a wealth of information, respect, and understanding of my situation, they offered me one other very important thing I had almost lost – hope.
One year and one week after finding out my HIV status, my son Fernandos was born. Fernandos was followed at Children’s Memorial Hospital (now Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital). He was given medications and monitored until they were able to determine he was HIV negative and had not contracted the virus. Every appointment terrified me but also marked the opportunity to be one step closer to a healthy child. Hearing you have a healthy child is a special kind gift. My son hadn’t only been a surprise, but a blessing.
A few years passed and I was invited to my first public speaking engagement. It was a short speech on World AIDS Day at City Hall. I was invited to speak on behalf of a new initiative called PACPI – Pediatric AIDS Chicago Prevention Initiative. The theme that year was very appropriate: Making a Difference.
“Making a difference means making a change. Every single person has the ability to make a difference that will make a change in the fight against HIV. These can be as simple as talking to your partners, using a condom, educating others, or donating to an organization. But most importantly it is about changing our mind about how you view this disease as well as how you view the people who have it. It is about acceptance.”
PACPI has grown quite a bit from that day both in terms of the types of programs and services it is able to offer as well as the partnerships it has formed in order to make these a realization. The important work of this organization has not only provided support to families, mothers, children, and their partners but has helped to continue the work of the medical community by going beyond the walls of doctors’ offices and going into the communities and walls of people’s homes. To make sure no one falls through the cracks, that there are resources available, and so hopeful families can have healthy babies.
As I mark my 20th year of being HIV positive, my son continues to be happy and healthy and has entered his first year in college. Though many would see this as the beginning of his education, it is impossible to mention all the things I have learned from him. He has taught me about God’s grace. When I told him at the age of eight I was HIV positive and what that meant, he taught me about acceptance and love. During the same time period, when I talked to him about my public speaking and the possibility of how people may treat me or him, he taught me about courage. In the selfie we took recently (seen here), he has also taught me about pride. I always tell him I am proud of him and he continues to show me he is also proud of me and the work I have had the opportunity to do around HIV awareness, education, and prevention.
I am especially proud to have been able to be a part of PACPI and to see the difference it is making in the lives of so many. I am excited about the strides the medical community has made in preventing positive births, reducing the risk to less than 1% with treatment, as well as preventing transmission to partners through PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). Most of all, I am hopeful about the possibility of healthy families and a future which includes an HIV-free generation.
Pati has a Masters of Divinity degree, likes to write, loves her dogs and definitely loves her son.