Corazon’s Heart

At 14, Corazon Aquino is finally a big sister, a role she finds “exciting”. She enjoys helping her mother care for 1-month old Rose and thinks about her future, when she will be a doctor and have three children of her own. She feels secure knowing that her children, like her baby sister, can be born HIV-free. Both Corazon and her mother, Esther Opinya, are living with HIV.

I want to be a doctor in my future so that I can help those living HIV-positive.Corazon

Corazon now sits patiently under a tree outside the Magina Health Center in Homa Bay County, Kenya, while her mother and Rose have their first postnatal check-up. She is joined by Judith Omwango, the facilitator of her adolescent psychosocial support group, supported by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF).

Esther did not know that she and her husband, George, were HIV-positive back in 2002, when Corazon was born. It was only two years later—after George grew frail and died—that Esther carried Corazon to the Homa Bay Referral Hospital to be tested for the virus. The result was positive. Esther had passed the virus to Corazon during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.

Esther and Corazon have been a strong team—united against AIDS and for each other. When Corazon was 7, her mother disclosed to Corazon that Corazon’s father had died from AIDS-related causes and that both she and her mother are HIV-positive.

“The day that she told me I was HIV-positive I was so sad,” says Corazon. “I [thought] that people living HIV-positive must be thin and would be dying after some few years. When I went to school, my teacher asked me what was wrong, and I told him that I was HIV-positive.

“Then I told my class members that I am HIV- positive. They did not mind it at first. But I noticed that they were not playing with me because they thought that people living HIV-positive will transmit it through shaking hands.

“I told my mother everything that I was going through, so she went to school and talked to my teacher and said that some pupils were afraid to play with me and that I was lonely in school. The teacher told the pupils that that is bad manners—that I cannot easily transmit the virus, that I got HIV by mistake.”

Judith Omwango is another adult who intervened on behalf of Corazon. Three years ago Omwango noticed that Corazon and other adolescents living with HIV were intimidated about retrieving their medicine and following up with doctors.

“When she came to the health center, she would sit and wait under that tree—waiting for adults to take their drugs and leave because she feared adults,” says Omwango. “The main challenge comes when adolescents living with HIV think ‘I am the only one taking these drugs,’” says Omwango. “Since they came at different times, they were not able to meet with other [youth] on treatment.

“When I started this group, I decided to bring the HIV-positive and the HIV-negative children together to the health center,” says Omwango. “They played together. They learned about HIV. They drank juice and ate biscuits together.

“Then after a few months I started meeting only with the HIV-positive children. I now have around 48 adolescents.”

“We love this support group because it helps us to meet with others from different places,” says Corazon. “We usually come here on Sunday. We play football with other children and we are taught how to live HIV-positive. Now we are happy that that there is someone who can support us and care for us [besides] our parents.”

Corazon looks toward the entrance of the health center as Esther emerges, with a bright smile: baby Rose is gaining weight and in good health. Esther takes a seat with Corazon and Judith under the tree. Esther recalls the HIV journey she has walked with Corazon, thus far.

“At first, I was very much stressed,” says Esther, “because, after her father died, now we were just two alone.”

But just as Corazon found solidarity with her mentor, Judith, and with other HIV-positive teens, Esther joined a support group for HIV-positive mothers. She became educated about HIV and a passionate advocate for treatment and nutrition. She now volunteers at the Magina Health Center as a peer educator.

“I want HIV-positive people to live long,” says Esther. “I don’t want to see anyone dying of AIDS.

“If you are positive that is not the end of everything. An HIV-positive mother can give birth to an HIV-negative child. I know that this one that I am carrying [Rose] will likely be HIV-negative because I adhered to my PMTCT [prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV] treatment.

“Now, we are very much comfortable,” says Esther. “We are taking our drugs. Corazon reminds me; I remind her. We make sure we eat a well balanced diet, which is important. We are eating locally available foods. We are not worried about the disease because we know that if we use the drugs properly you can live.

Esther now has a new husband and their family is expanding. With pride, she relates the activities of her eldest daughter. Corazon is popular in school and an excellent netball competitor. She is a youth leader at their church.

“I know that Corazon is going to learn, that she is going to go with her education until she finishes. So I’m very glad,” says Esther.

“I want to be a doctor in my future so that I can help those living HIV-positive,” Corazon says. “I will move to other places so that I can teach children about HIV. And I want to have HIV-negative children.”