HIV-Positive at Heart
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Aclose relative of mine was suffering from HIV in the late 1990s, before antiretroviral drugs came to my homeland, Peru. Two volunteers reached out to accompany him. I call them angels. Maryknoll Father Joseph (Padre José) Fedora has been an angel, too.

I first met Padre José through a mutual aid group. He helped people with HIV, including those who could not afford their medical expenses. We organized fundraising activities to lend a hand. 

We did one such activity for my relative. Padre José supported us, looking for medicines and helping us financially. Thankfully, my family member survived.

Now I try to be an angel to people with HIV as part of a group called Missioners on the Way.

Padre José started this group about 15 years ago, with Maryknoll Sister Peg Hennessey and Medical Mission Sister Cristina Gadiot, so we lay people could join in the pastoral care of people living with HIV. 

Because Peru has been receiving free access to antiretroviral drugs since the early 2000s, we can now connect patients with hospitals. We continue to accompany them, helping them live healthy lives. When a person receives a diagnosis, we link them to professionals such as infectious disease doctors, nutritionists or psychologists. Often, the patients cannot cover these expenses, so we help. Mostly, we follow up to see how they feel, and encourage them not to abandon their treatment. Many times, people we have helped become volunteers themselves.

Padre José tells us, “On the road you are walking, God is there with you.” I felt that way when other volunteers and I visited a young man with HIV on the outskirts of Lima. He and his mother lived on a hillside in a dwelling made of corrugated iron, wood and cardboard. The young man had shingles. It would have been hard for his elderly mother, who could not walk, to take him to the doctor and to get medication without our help. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have not been able to visit people because of Peru’s high infection rate. (As of October 2021, Peru, a country of 33 million people, has had almost 200,000 COVID-19 deaths, the highest per capita rate in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.)

Now we accompany people living with HIV by phone, video or text messages. Having HIV, they are more vulnerable and are terrified of being exposed to the coronavirus. 

Because of their isolation, they need to talk to someone. Sometimes, during a phone call, I find myself wanting to give advice, but I tell myself, “Let them speak; they need to be heard.” 

If they are grieving for lost loved ones, I tell them, “Go ahead and cry. … After crying, light a candle and remember the good things you experienced with that person.” This has helped me enormously, because I have known 60 people who died from COVID. 

Helping people, even during the pandemic, brings me fulfillment. We have been able to tell them where to find oxygen tanks or food donations and to connect them with doctors. We remind them, “You are with God;  you are not alone.” Their appreciation is so motivating. They tell me, “You are my angel, and you are not abandoning me.”

Bringing support to people living with HIV is an immense task. I am grateful for the training and spiritual guidance Padre José gives us, especially through retreats. 

He always tells us that we might not have HIV, but we are HIV-positive at heart.

Featured image: Maryknoll Father Joseph Fedora (top row, center, with sunglasses) and Medical Mission Sister Cristina Gadiot (top row, second from right) gather with members of Missioners on the Way, including Sonia Otarola (center, with glasses), who accompany people living with HIV. (Courtesy of Joseph Fedora/Peru)



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About the author

Sonia Otarola

Sonia Otarola lives in Lima, Peru, with her husband and family.