Why we are hopeful for the future of our HIV+ children and thankful that they are ours.
December 1 is World AIDS Day. Three years ago that would have meant just about nothing to me. I did not know much of anything about HIV/AIDS, and to be very honest, I did not care very much either. It was something that didn’t affect me, and I thought of it as “other people’s problem”.
And then I made a very life-changing trip to Ethiopia, and met a little girl that would change me forever.
The little girl was an orphan, and she was HIV+. She sat down in my lap and as I rocked her in my arms, held her fat little toddler hands and rubbed her soft hair, I felt my heart swell and my eyes water. She melted into my body like my own babies do…in that way that says, “I am yours and you are mine and this is where I belong.”
As I was filled with the desire to be that little girl’s mom and to give her the love she so clearly wanted and needed, my brain started racing with questions. What would her long-term prognosis be? Would she die young? Would she be a risk to the rest of our family? Could we afford her medical treatment?
That day I did not know much about HIV. But I could not forget that little girl, and so when we returned home, I was committed to educating myself and my husband about HIV.
We did research on the Center for Disease Control website and many other resources, and we consulted with a Pediatric Infectious Disease specialist. We found out that HIV could not be transmitted in any type of casual contact and that an HIV+ child would not be a risk to the rest of the family or to our community.
We found out that her long-term prognosis would be excellent with a close to normal life expectancy, that she would likely live in great overall health, and that parenting her would not be much different than parenting any other child. We found that the costs of medications, with our health insurance plan, would be very reasonable. We found out that although there would be a lot of extra red tape, that it would be possible to adopt her.
We prayed a lot; maybe more than I have ever prayed about anything. My answer was always the same. “She is yours.” We plowed ahead, determined to get her home.
Belane finally came home in November of 2006. During the time that we waited for all of the paperwork to be complete so we could travel back to Ethiopia to get her, I made myself an “expert” on parenting HIV+ children and on adopting HIV+ kids. I wanted to know as much as possible. Although at that time adopting HIV+ children was almost completely unheard of, I shared our story openly and honestly, in hopes of educating, and possibly even inspiring, others.
When we returned to Ethiopia to get Belane, my heart and my eyes were truly opened to the plight of HIV+ orphans. Being an orphan is a terrible fate, and orphans who are HIV+ are at the very bottom of society’s “ladder”. It was heart breaking to realize that with limited medical care available in Ethiopia and a crushing social stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, these children faced almost impossible odds.
In January of 2008 I was hired by Adoption Advocates International to be their HIV+ Adoption Coordinator. I get to advocate for HIV+ orphans, monitor their health care, provide prospective adoptive families with information before, during and after the adoption process, and best of all, I get to see these children, who are truly some of the most vulnerable on Earth, join loving families and thrive.
Along with fueling my passion to advocate for HIV+ orphans, something else very significant and life-changing happened while I was in Ethiopia getting Belane. We saw a little boy who had just been brought into the orphanage. He was a year old, but could not even sit up. He was emaciated, and so sick that his eyes were glazed over. They were open, but if he “saw” us, there was no sign of it. I asked if he was going to be available for adoption, and they told me that they didn’t think he would live through the weekend. I went home, and could not forget him. Again it was whispered to my heart, “He is yours.”
In February of 2008, I traveled back to Ethiopia to get my beloved Solomon Tsega, who is now a robust three year old. The little boy who had once so given up on life that he was barely there, is now so full of life he touches everyone that meets him. His recovery has been nothing short of a miracle and the doctors have high hopes for his long-term health.
Belane is now five years old, is the picture of health, and is quite the sassy princess.
Some people think we’re saints for adopting our kids. We’re not. Some people think we’re crazy for adopting our kids. Again, we’re not. We are just a family like any other, that has come together in a different way than most.
Both Belane and Solomon are normal, typical, healthy kids who are full of life and energy. They are both expected to live long and full lives. They take their medication twice a day and have extra trips to Primary Children’s for monitoring, but other than that they run, dance, get put in time-out, play, and act like any other little kid. They have taught me a great deal about life and love and hope, and I am so grateful to be their mom.
While three years ago I did not know much about HIV/AIDS and I saw it as “other people’s problem,” I now know that HIV is a human problem. In July 2008 it was estimated that 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV, and over two million people die each year without access to treatment.
Because of the stigma and unnecessary fear surrounding HIV and transmission, many people who are HIV+ are not open about their status. However, with the number of people living with HIV in the United States, it has been estimated that most American citizens regularly interact with someone who is affected or infected by HIV, whether they are aware of it or not.
While medically speaking, HIV is relatively easy to “live with” (often considered much easier to manage than diabetes, hepatitis and many other conditions), socially, there is still a nasty stigma and a great amount of ignorance and unnecessary fear surrounding the disease. Many people living with HIV feel that dealing with the social and emotional aspects of the disease are much more challenging than dealing with the medical aspects.
Our greatest fears as parents do not involve our children’s health, but how people will treat them.
We believe that educating people, and providing accurate information about HIV, is the only way to fight the stigma, and hopefully make the world a little easier for our children to live in.
HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. Not everyone that is HIV+ has AIDS. HIV is the virus that left untreated, causes AIDS. HIV is different from most other viruses because it attacks the immune system. The immune system gives our bodies the ability to fight infections. HIV finds and destroys a type of white blood cell (T cells or CD4 cells) that the immune system must have to fight disease.
AIDS stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. Having AIDS means that the virus has weakened the immune system to the point at which the body has a difficult time fighting infections.
Information we wish everyone knew about HIV
HIV can NOT be spread through casual/household contact. HIV is not spread through hugging, kissing, shaking hands, sharing toys, sneezing, coughing, sharing food, sharing drinks, bathing, swimming, playing or any other casual way. It has been proven that HIV and AIDS can only be spread through sexual contact, birth, breastfeeding and blood to blood contact (such as sharing needles).
HIV+ children (and HIV+ adults who practice safe sex and do not use drugs) are not a risk to those around them. By using “universal precautions”, such as handling any blood with care, you can completely eliminate the risk of contracting HIV from a child. It is important to know that there are no documented cases of HIV ever being transmitted by a bloody nose, a scraped knee, in contact during sports or in any other casual way.
HIV is now considered a chronic but manageable disease, when treatment is available. With treatment, people who are HIV+ can live indefinitely without developing AIDS and can live long and full lives.
People who are HIV+ deserve to be treated with love, respect, support and acceptance as all people do. If anyone wants more info on transmission, there is great information here: www.cdc.gov/hiv/resources/factsheets/transmission.htm and here: www.thewellproject.org/en_US/HIV_The_Basics/
If you are interested in learning how to sponsor an HIV+ orphan, please visit www.ahopeforchildren.org