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AIDS Foundation of Chicago

 StreetWise (USA) 01 October 2019

Susan was 15 years old when her mother, sister, grandmother, and great-grandmother died in an automobile accident outside their home in Mississippi. Devastated, Susan dealt with her grief the only way she knew how — by swallowing a handful of pills. (1203 Words) - By Ryan Singleton

As terrible as that experience was, it became a source of strength that would empower her years later. She recalls her overdose in the same matter-of-fact manner that one might describe last night's dinner. She speaks with a confidence that a person three times her age might struggle to find.

When Susan turned 22, she was living in Chicago with her father, step-mother, and younger siblings. She carried a fulltime course load at South Suburban College nine months out of the year. For twelve months a year, she took care of her sisters and brothers. She maintained this routine even when she became pregnant.

Susan describes her 22-year-old self as a "spoiled brat." But she sees those years as one of the most normal, stable periods of her life. Her boyfriend supported her, as did the soon-to-be grandparents of her child.

Four months into her pregnancy, Susan's life began to shift, and the silence set in.

She first felt the silence from her doctors, who said little during her stay at the hospital, while they examined an ovarian cyst. Physicians and nurses constantly passed through her room to collect blood samples and poke her with needles. But they said nothing.

After being discharged, Susan sat silently-confused and quiet. A week later, her doctors called. Susan was HIV positive.

Susan had never experimented with drugs, and had tested negative for the disease months prior her pregnancy. Devastated, she turned to her partner, "and it was just chaos," Susan said.

Her boyfriend denied the diagnosis. "It's positive. I have the lab results right here," Susan told him. "Do you want to go in [to get tested]?"

Since he said hadn't been with anyone else, he answered no and chose not to see a doctor. Their conversations continued like this for two weeks. Then Susan's partner grew angry. He accused her of cheating. The relationship fell apart.

Susan resumed her quiet burden and continued to live with her father and step-mother, trapped in an endless fear. She said nothing.

Silence is isolating. But, as Susan eventually learned, breaking that silence is even more isolating when you have HIV. After sharing her story with her dad and step-mom, her parents banished her from their home. Her step-mother was particularly afraid that Susan's disease would spread to the children.

Susan stayed with a cousin, who let her sleep on his couch. She remained silent, storing her diagnosis in an imaginary, secret box that she kept trying to lose, but couldn't. Every time she opened it, her situation seemed to worsen.

Though Susan continued to see HIV and OB/GYN doctors, she struggled to embrace the reality of her situation. She refused to take medicine and eventually collapsed into a state of depression.

"I thought negative all the time," she said. But she never judged herself or blamed loved ones for abandoning her when she needed their support most. "At first I thought suicidal, but I didn't do it. I just thought about it."

Then something changed. She remembered how she felt about her loved ones who died years earlier in the car accident.

"After that [tragedy], I never had a mother figure in my life," Susan said. "And I always wished, since I was 15 years old, that I would have a baby that would love me the same way I would love him."

The thought of loving her child the way her mother cared for her encouraged her to take her medications and fight this disease.

For the first time since her diagnosis, she was not alone. Susan let go of her silence and enrolled in the Pediatrics AIDS Chicago Prevention Initiative (PACPI) program at her hospital, in southwest Chicago. She became a focal point for a medical network dedicated to supporting pregnant women who have HIV/AIDS.

PACPI gave her an opportunity to choose hope when she could have chosen hopelessness, to be strong when she could have been weak, to give birth to a baby without HIV when denial could have devastated her child's life.

Starting with six pills a day and frequent therapy sessions, Susan slowly began to conquer her illness and eventually achieved her goal of becoming undetectable with three months remaining in her pregnancy.

But she was still homeless.

With so many doors slamming on her, she needed one to open-one she could walk through and create her home.

Social workers at the hospital connected her with a housing organization on the North Side of the city. However, the agency could only provide a distant solution to an immediate, vexing problem. Susan needed housing now.

After exhausting all other possibilities, Susan moved into a temporary shelter that also provided medical care. She lived there for three months. Not only was she the youngest resident, she was the only pregnant member. Her feelings of being different didn't matter though, because it was there that she found a home. Or rather, her home found her.

During her stay at the shelter, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and PACPI Housing Program located an apartment one week before her 36-hour labor.

"When I first came here and I looked [at the apartment], I was like, 'Oh wow!'" Susan said. "When [my caseworker] came I said, 'This is for me?'"

Receiving this gift is an experience she cherishes daily. It gave her the opportunity for a new beginning when the end was so near.

After being diagnosed with HIV, losing her boyfriend, being kicked-out of her parents' house and spending three months in a temporary shelter, Susan had a home-a place with hardwood floors, offwhite walls, and lots of windows.

"I just started crying, because I never had an apartment before, and I was pregnant. I was like, 'Oh wow! My child has a house to come to. And [my caseworker] was like, 'Well that's not all.' Then she gave me the two checks. She gave me a $3000 voucher and a $1000 one. She was like, 'This is for your furniture, and this is for all your appliances, which we'll take you to get it.' I don't know why-I was overwhelmed because I didn't have anything," Susan said.

Her two bedroom apartment fills with light in the sunset. Her living room holds a soft, tan sofa, matching love seat, and several end tables with lamps. Down the hall from her living room is a kitchen stuffed with essentials, filling her apartment with the scent of home cooking.

But more than anything else, her 15-month-old son-who tested negative for HIV-makes this apartment home. "This is his home," Susan said. "This is all that he knows. He knows every part of this house."

Young women shouldn't be defeated by poverty, depression, and disease. They should be molding their lives so that they can reach their potential in whatever they choose. That's exactly what Susan is doing.

Originally published by StreetWise, USA. ©


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