Keeping the light on HIV

MORE than five months ago, Grey Hu, a person living with human immunodeficiency virus (PLHIV), told his story.

He shared his story to open the eyes of those who are afflicted with HIV-AIDS and most especially to those who don’t have it.

Grey Hu has slowly opened his story not only to the public but to his father.

Not only that, Grey together with the other PLHIV in the city have banded together and formed the Northern Mindanao Advocates Society (NorMA).

The group, with 30 members, wanted to call it N Society, but decided to name it NorMA and officially formed it on January 14, 2014. It is composed of 28 male and two females PLHIV under the guidance Mike Mahinay, executive director of Alagad Mindanao, and Lerio Chua, also of Alagad Mindanao.

Grey had always dreamed of establishing a care support base for the PLHIV community in the city especially that most of those diagnosed couldn’t immediately tell their families of their situation.

NorMA will be there as an option or aid of Alagad Mindanao which is in the frontline of fighting HIV-AIDS in the country for more than two decades now.

Grey said that forming NorMA was a challenge. However, he is optimistic that the desire of the other members to make a difference would propel them to expand in the days ahead. To expand in providing care support at its core to PLHIV in the city.

“We have a vision and we will strive to get to it by starting it with baby steps to strengthen our goal and commitment to our vision. NorMA is a pure positive community aiming at becoming a health and wellness hub of PLHIV in the country to lengthen their lives while living to the fullest. Its identity will be kept undisclosed to reach more PLHIV who are not ready to come out yet.

So far, Grey said, the group has been holding anonymous meetings to include doing yoga, zumba and soon to include acupuncture to toughen the immune system.

“Aside from being a group for care support, NorMA is home to blood brothers who need help and in the upcoming World Aids Day this year, it will hold various activities such as Hulagway Dos – a photoshoot for a cause, Project Oxygen 2.0 which is an art installation and give more trainings to reach out to other PLHIV through Alagad Mindanao,” Grey said.

To become a member of NorMA, a tested PLHIV must be screened by Alagad Mindanao and NorMA’s executive committee.

“We strongly encourage other PLHIV who might be suffering in silence to join us and find this new home.”

Today, May 18, the world holds the 2014 International AIDS Candlelight Memorial and Mobilization and advocates of HIV-AIDS will gather at the Provincial Capitol grounds at 3 p.m. to form themselves into human red ribbon while they light red candles to signify their support on stopping the spread of HIV-AIDS through massive information about it.

More coming out

NorMA’s execom for events Echo Richards is a 25-year-old male resident in Cagayan de Oro who was diagnosed in July 2013. He said engaging in vices like smoking, drinking, clubbing and sexual activities were his escape from insecurities.

“I thought before that being the cup of tea by everyone means beautiful and important,” Echo said.

His relationships with men were short-term. He was unfaithful to his past boyfriends.

“I ruined my body, the temple of God and I blamed myself. I used to think that I was once a person with lots of insecurities.

In May 2012, I was so sick and got almost bed-ridden for two weeks. “I had a gut feeling that I was one of them (PLHIV). Yet, I blamed it on depression instead. I was on denial. I was depressed for the longest time.”

In June of 2012, I was diagnosed with Buerger's disease also known as thromboangitis obliterans which is a rare disease that blocks the blood vessels of the hands and feet. The following month, Echo had fever for almost two weeks. His doctor friend gave him a high dose of antibiotics. Then, in October 2012 he had orchitis, the swelling of testicles. Echo’s friend who is a nurse took care of him while he was in severe pain and stress that compelled him to stop working for a while.

Though 2012 brought him trouble, he remained optimistic that what he was going through had a meaning. One day, alone in his dark room, he cried his heart out and kept on praying to never be sick again.

In July 2013, he met a foreigner. Before the encounter began, the foreigner gave him a swab test. “Few minutes later, I got my confirmation: REACTIVE.”

“My world turned upside down. But, he assured me that I could still live like anyone else. I was relieved. We talked about my status. I didn’t shed a tear. He advised me on what to do and with that I conditioned my mind.”

Echo went to his closest friend and broke the news that he has been infected with HIV. His friend hugged him tight and he felt loved.
“I felt important. I am blessed having him. It wasn't easy sleeping and waking up in distress from day the I assumed being positive. But on that day, I lived again. It was another chance HE gave me. An answered prayer. I flew to Manila for confirmation. My parents thought I left for a job offer.”

At the testing hub, I was already prepared for the result. It yielded positive. “In a matter of seconds, my world turned 360°. I had my base line in RITM Alabang with cd4 count of 237. Immediately, I talk to my elder sister living overseas. She broke down. I felt her. She was blaming somebody and even HIM. I reprimanded and comforted her that everything was gonna be fine. I assured her, that God will never give an obstacle if I can’t carry. Then she calmed down.”

Echo flew back again in Cagayan de Oro then finished a project.
Two days before flying back to Manila, he told his family about his situation. They hugged him.

“Inside me, I was crying. Once again, I felt loved and accepted. They gave me all I need including financial support.”

No boundaries

He realized his family’s support knows no boundaries.
He went and locked himself in his room and cried. “I am important. I am special.”

As he began his medication in Manila in October 2013, allergies surfaced. His fever was so high, weight dropped from 72 to 53 kilos.

“I turned so dark like almost purple. My calf and ankle were swollen. But I was so blessed to have housemates who knew my status, helped and supported me emotionally and psychologically,” Echo said.

Echo’s journey of support from friends to his family continued. It has strengthened him each day. In December 2013, a good friend of his visited him in Manila. She invited him and his housemates to her hotel. There, his friend assured him of much love and support. Before she left abroad, Echo and his friend chatted on Facebook. He was very emotional as his friend never turned her back on him.

During the holiday break in 2013, he flew back home and spent Christmas and New Year with his family and friends.

“It was beautiful and splendid. It was also heartbreaking to see my family left the parking lot as I entered the airport.”

And finally, Echo decided to come back here in March.

“I realized that there is no place like home. As long as I have my family and these great friends together with HIM, I am complete. There is nothing to hide. No masks. I am confident and secured of what I am and what I have.”

Second home

For Echo, NorMA is his second home.

“I found my new family among the members. Such group made my whole life different. The support I got from everyone in NorMA, aside from my family and friends, is a blessing. With them, I can be myself and relate to everyone. It is also an edge on my end to share my experiences with them and the things I've been through since medication.”

The HIV has made Echo loved himself more and vowed to live life to its most meaningful way. “My life never stopped when I acquired this status. In fact, I am a better man today and I am whole. I learned to love myself more than I used to appreciate my life. And I wanted to share this burning optimism to everyone in the group and among PLHIV.”

Echo believes that changed on perspective on PLHIV should start within “ourselves with HIS guidance and self-preservation is the moral I learned from this condition.”

To live life to the fullest with much love and care toward one another and self is Echo’s daily mantra.

HIV excuses no one

Abdul, NorMA execom for care support, is a 28 male who was diagnosed in 2011 and began his Anti-retroviral medication in 2013.

Abdul admitted he went through the darkest moments of his life due to his curiosity. “Yes, I am a Muslim but I am a human being and I make mistakes. Nakig-relasyon ko ug same sex, nakig-hilawas ug walay proteksyon. Wala man gud kaayo ko knowledge aning hiv (I was in a relationship with the same sex. I had unprotected sex. I didn’t have much knowledge about HIV),” Abdul said.

Abdul’s partner went abroad as a tourist to get a working visa early in 2011. “A month after he arrived there, he got sick and tested positive with HIV. Because of that I decided to get tested so I would know my status. Unlike others, I had depression first before I got the confirmation.”

In 2011, Abdul had two testing – VCT and at the Red Cross where he was told something was wrong with his blood. “I never thought of getting sad since it was my doing. There was no one to blame but me. Then, I realized that I needed to value my life and I needed to do something to continue living.”

Thus, Abdul decided to religiously practice Islam again as a Muslim who erred who needed to repent.

“Nangayo ako ug pasaylo sa Allah. Adtong 2011 to 2012, ok na sa akoa ang paglikay sa mga bawal sama sa illegal sex, dli pag inum ug mga bisyo tungod ky bawal pud kini sa Islam. I watched MMK’s ‘Pulang Laso’ in 2012 ug didto mihilak ko ug kusog ug nakamata ko angay pud diay nga i-update nko akong cd4 count (I asked Allah’s forgiveness. In 2011 to 2012, it was okay for me to avoid illegal sex, drinking and vices since these are prohibited in Islam. I watched MMK’s ‘Pulang Laso’ in 2012 and I cried so hard and realized that I should also get an update of my cd4 count),” Abdul shared.

Abdul went back to Davao City early in 2013 and had his cd4 count. From his initial cd4 500 it went down to 146 and so he started the ARV medication and never missed for almost a year now. His cd4 count has shot up to 493 already.

Abdul saw how his partner suffered until his death. “I had been there in his journey, it was so painful since he had been part of my life. His doctor advised me to take care.”

Abdul is grateful to Allah and believes that he is surviving now for a reason whether good or bad and furthered, “it’s Allah’s will and I have to accept it and move on. There is life after this condition and if there is life after death then there is nothing to worry.”

He thanked the peer support at NorMA since the members are supporting one another.

For him, it is difficult to end HIV, but he believes that if one follows goodness then HIV is impossible.

Accepting the situation in heart and mind coupled with knowledge, abstinence on sex and the thought that life goes on made Abdul disregard people’s reactions saying, “Naay sakit o wala (with or without disease) we will all die soon.”

”Let's value our life. Life is short,” he said.
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