June 1, 2023

For a woman in her 60’s and who has been living with HIV for over 20 years now, the shame associated with having the virus continues.
Even as “inclusivity” has become a byword these days, 64-year-old Elena Felix said people living with HIV (PLHIV) especially women continue to be “excluded.”
Elena said she experienced this first hand even from her relatives and people whom she thought were her friends when they gossiped about how she acquired HIV.
A former overseas worker who worked for nine years beginning in the early 1990s as a tailor in Oman, Qatar, and Dubai to provide for her four children after she separated from her husband, Elena said it was through a routine medical checkup when it was discovered that she had HIV.
It was in 1994 when she had to process her papers so she could continue working in Dubai when her laboratory results showed that she had a “slight virus” and was sent back to the Philippines to undergo more medical tests.
In the Philippines, she underwent another round of exams and where her tests showed that she was positive for HIV.
“I was only 36 years old then and at the peak of my career. I was not a mere sewer but a master pattern maker. Ibig sabihin mataas ang katungkulan ko,” Elena said, referring to her designation in the boutique where she worked.
She said she might have contracted the virus from a foreigner – from one of her clients when she became a part-time sex worker to add to her income that she sends to her family in the Philippines.
Felix said she could not accept that she would soon die for having the virus but with her resolve to continue working so she can provide for her young children, she sought a second opinion. Based on the tests done by another laboratory, HIV was not detected so she was able to return to Dubai.
On her return to Dubai, Elena had to undergo another round of tests for her residency and to be issued a working permit.
She later got a call from the hospital where she had a test and was told that she had to take a repeat test. Elena said the test confirmed that she had HIV.
Shortly after the release of the results, Elena said the company where she worked sent her home and advised her to seek further treatment in the country.
While waiting for her deportation proceedings, Elena said she had depression and went to the extent of ending her life.
But fate had other plans.
In the Philippines, the first clinic to diagnose her referred her to the Regional Institute for Tropical Medicine to undergo treatment.
It was at the RITM that she was told she only had five to 10 years to live.
But Elena refused to seek treatment preferring to continue working as a tailor. She also hid that she had HIV from her siblings with only her 18-year-old child knowing her condition.
“Sa loob ng mahabang panahon wala akong treatment although madalas akong magkasakit noon,” Elena recalled.
Although she was suffering from the complications of having HIV, Elena said she prayed for God to make her remaining years worthwhile.
It was only when she had to undergo surgery for the removal of a tumor in her abdomen that she had to seek medical consult again.
Elena said it was her attending physician at the Philippine General Hospital who informed her that anti-retroviral drugs have been developed to address HIV.
She finally agreed to undergo treatment after undergoing surgery albeit her experience at the hospital then turned out to be one of the most unpleasant when she had to be declared as having Hepatitis B.
Her situation eventually had to be disclosed when she was later referred to the San Lazaro Hospital to receive her anti-retroviral treatment.
Elena said her referral to said hospital was an eye-opener. She met support groups and others who were similarly situated.
“Doon na ako nagdesisyon na magsalita tungkol sa AIDS,” Elena said.
From that single step, Elena said she was able to form groups advocating protection for PLHIV, and educating the public about HIV and AIDS.
In fact, she is now a member of the speaker’s bureau of the Association of Positive Women Advocates Inc., a support and advocacy group for women living with HIV and a convenor of many groups supporting PLHIV.
Elena said her children have fully accepted her condition and are supportive of her causes.
But society has yet to fully embrace that PLHIV do not have to be isolated and should not be blamed for acquiring the virus.
“Kaya matindi ang advocacy ko dahil naranasan ko. Meron pa ring stigma,” Elena said recalling that she was ridiculed and was called “puta” when people started to hear about her condition.
Over 20 years after her diagnosis, Elena, now a senior citizen said for as long as she can, she will never tire of campaigning for the rights of PLHIV who continue to be judged despite the public not knowing the circumstances which people like them have gone through. – Rimaliza A. Opiña