Davao Lass with AIDS Fights Her Toughest Battle

By Carlos H. Conde (source: )

DAVAO CITY -- The moment she heard the news, Sheila got furious. "You bitch! How could you withhold something like this from me for so long? Do you think you are God?" she yelled into the phone. The person at the other end, a government doctor, kept silent. The doctor knew that, at that point, arguing with Sheila was pointless because she, understandably so, was terribly upset.

It was June 1, 1998, and the then 23-year-old Sheila (not her real name) had just learned that she had contracted the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS (Aqcuired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).

"The doctor later tried to appease me,” Sheila says. She told me that the infection has a window period, as though that should make me feel better." A window period is the time the body needs to develop HIV antibodies, which act like soldiers protecting the body from intruders such as viruses. The start of the period varies in those infected, from as early as three months up to as late as six months upon infection.

A week earlier, Sheila (her picture on the left) had taken an HIV test in Manila but was told that the test results would take longer to come in. So she decided to go back home to Davao City. "But at the back of my mind, I knew something was wrong. I knew that they knew something. I got scared and I thought of my two children. They were still so young!" she says. For one full week, Sheila was depressed. When an aunt noticed that she had been crying much too often, Sheila told her she might have the virus. The aunt asked her to call the doctor and badger her for the test results.

Death sentence

"It was like a death sentence," Sheila, now 27, recalls. After the call, Sheila walked aimlessly around downtown. Her mind was blank. She only realized how far she had gone and how tired she had become when the rains fell and she was soaking wet. "Then I thought of my two children," she says.

But the thought of her kids failed to soothe Sheila. She sank into depression and paranoia (she was convinced government men would whisk her off to the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, where persons with AIDS are taken care of) and rarely, if ever, got out of their house in a poor community somewhere in downtown Davao City.

When she realized she had to work in order to feed her kids, she learned one other bitter thing: she could never work again, at least not in the sex industry.

As it turned out, her fellow prostituted women and their pimps and managers had learned of Sheila's test results way before she did - and promptly spread this. The result was that Sheila was shut out.

She asked the government doctor to allow her to work again as an entertainer but she was told that that would never happen. "I promised to her that I will never have sex with customers again, but she said, 'That's impossible. If your client points a gun at you, how can you resist?'"

"I went to see the manager of the bar I had worked in but he wouldn't take me. I pleaded that I could do the dishes if he wanted but he said no," she says. Before Sheila left, the manager gave her P500. "I felt so useless," Sheila says.

Without any education or any skill that would land her a job, Sheila went downhill from there. She tried washing clothes for neighbors but she could only do so much of it. Besides, the money was simply not enough for the children, not to mention her siblings who were also young.

She also couldn't rely on the father of her child because he was jobless. "He works sometimes as a tricycle driver but most of the time, he was good for nothing, which is why I broke up with him a long time ago," Sheila says.

Back from the pits

Then a friend mentioned that an NGO could help. First, the NGO approached City Hall for P2,000 so Sheila could start a sari-sari store business. When this venture failed, she was taken in as a staff by the NGO, doing such tasks as filing newspapers and cleaning the offices. Sheila is still with that NGO today, happy that she was brought back from the pits.

But the virus has grown stronger. She has had oral candidiasis, herpes sores, oral fungal infection, among others. Also, for one whole month, she suffered fever. "My lymph nodes were swollen all the time," she says.

The lymph nodes are the part of the immune system where antibodies are produced. When the nodes swell, it means the immune system is working very hard to fight off infections. Contrary to popular belief, the reason why it takes long from infection to full-blown AIDS is not because the virus is dormant or takes a long time to spread. The reason is, every second of the day, the body's immune system is producing antibodies to fight off the virus, thus the constant swelling of the nodes. Eventually, the antibodies get overwhelmed by the virus, whose ability to multiply is phenomenal, thus crashing the body's immune system. This explains why persons with AIDS contract all sorts of infection, even the most common ones such as cold, and have a difficult time recovering from these illnesses.

Bound for Japan

Sheila was born in this city to a poor family. Her mother was a laundrywoman, her father an occasional house painter. She is the eldest among six children. She was 12 and in her first year in high school when her mother died of cervical cancer.

She stopped going to school because the family simply couldn't afford it. "My father didn't care that much about us. It was like we were leading our own wretched lives," she says bitterly. Because of poverty, Sheila decided to try her luck in Japan. She was only 16.

Unfortunately for Sheila, she was brought to Manila by an illegal recruiter who had promised her a job in Japan. She ended up in a casa in Makati, where a 35-year-old Japanese who worked in a jewelry shop in Tokyo eventually "bought" her for P50,000 from the prostitution house and sent her home to Davao City. "We had planned to get married but he died in Japan even before that could happen," Sheila says, sighing. "I thought he was the key to end my misery, but luck was not just on my side."

Sheila was stuck in Davao, intent on staying away from prostitution. It was here where she met her boyfriend, who impregnated her in 1995, when she was barely 19. It must be noted that this pregnancy and the following one, and the economic difficulty these brought on Sheila, were critical factors in her decision to go back to the sex industry.

No choice

After delivering the first child, Sheila decided to go back to work. "I had no choice," she says. She also made sure that she would be tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. But Davao was just not lucrative enough, so she moved to Cebu, where she stayed for six months. After earning enough money, she went back to Davao, depending on her boyfriend's meager income.

Two years later, she got pregnant again. This time, after giving birth, Sheila stayed put in Davao. "Nobody was supporting me, my children or my siblings. My boyfriend's income as an occasional tricycle driver was just not enough. Besides, he turned out to be good for nothing. That's why I decided to go back again to prostitution," she recalls. She had herself tested and was found negative of HIV.

For a year, Sheila plodded along, entertaining local clients, mostly Filipinos who, she now says, are the hardest people on earth to convince to wear condoms. "If I refuse, that meant lesser income for me. Besides my Filipino clients easily get upset when I ask them to wear condom," she says. The next year, in 1998, she contracted the AIDS virus.

"I would never go into prostitution without a reason. I had planned to stop but I simply couldn't do anything else. I thought the father of my children would rescue me from this hell but, like everything else that happens with my life, I'm just not that lucky," Sheila says. (The father, by the way, tested negative for HIV.)

Sheila says coming out is not yet an option. "I could be interviewed like this but I could never be identified," she says. She has two reasons for that. One is that she doesn't want her sister to be affected in case she comes out. "She is a very good student, she is doing great in school and she is our only hope. She is the only chance for my family to prosper. She also promised to take care of my children when I'm gone. Coming out would devastate her and my children," she says.

The other reason is fear. "If I come out, I'm sure all the men I had sex with will hunt me down and kill me, as if all this is my fault," she says.


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