LeSherri James’ featured blog originally appeared on the Black Women’s Health Empowerment website on April 28, 2016.
When you’re pregnant and HIV-positive, where do you turn?
By LeSherri James
In 2003, I was pregnant, homeless, and HIV-positive. But worst of all, I felt completely helpless and had nowhere to turn for help. I received my diagnosis after my senior year of high school; in college, I thought I might be pregnant. I went to the doctor to make sure.
The doctor confirmed the pregnancy. This should be a happy experience in a woman’s life, but for many women living with HIV it is confusing, scary and stressful. Pregnancy for HIV-positive women is often filled with unsympathetic strangers, family members and even medical professionals. Lucky for me, my mother was with me every step of the way.
Unfortunately, my doctor was a generalist and didn’t know how to provide care to someone living with HIV, let alone help them deliver a healthy baby. I needed the care of an HIV specialist. I waited at the hospital for six hours before my doctor referred me to someone who could help. That was when the hospital’s HIV social worker directed me to the Pediatric AIDS Chicago Prevention Initiative (PACPI), which connected me to the care I needed.
I was immediately assigned a case manager, Jaime, who genuinely cared about my health and wellbeing. Jaime made sure I got to my doctor’s appointments on time, filled my prescriptions and enrolled in prenatal training courses so I could learn how to care for my child. She also helped me sign up for health insurance and food assistance and find my very own apartment. The support PACPI provided is the reason my daughter was born without HIV. And even after I delivered, PACPI continued to empower and teach me how to be a strong and independent mother – something I wouldn’t be without them.
PAPCI saved me. I can’t imagine my life without this organization. Besides my mother, PACPI was the only support I had during my pregnancy. Today, I am able to provide for myself and my children and, most importantly, my daughter and son are HIV-negative and completely healthy.
We’re the lucky ones. But with the proposed cuts to the Illinois state budget, programs like PACPI may have to close their doors because Gov. Bruce Rauner considers them to be “nonessential.” Excuse me? That budget provided the resources to save my life and the lives of my babies—how can the governor, who swore an oath to protect the citizens of Illinois, consider our lives “nonessential”?
If a program that gives HIV-positive pregnant women the resources they need to deliver healthy babies shuts down, these vulnerable mothers will be left on their own without the tools or knowledge to navigate their delicate situation.
Without PACPI, what will happen to other expectant mothers who need help and empowerment like I did and have nowhere else to go? What will the 130 women PACPI supports each year do without care and guidance? What will happen to their children?
Do our lives not matter?
It’s time for the governor and the General Assembly to come together to pass a budget that doesn’t cut vital social services. Such a budget would not only keep PACPI running, but it would help women give birth to a future without HIV.
LeSherri James lives in Chicago.