My name is Patience Hlengiwe Kweyama. I am from South Africa, am 39 years old and a mother of five. I am HIV-positive.
I discovered I was HIV-positive in 1996 when I was pregnant with my third son. I went for prenatal care just like every pregnant woman, and after some testing, they told me that I was HIV positive. They gave me one tablet and told me to take it when I went into labor.
I had lots of questions like, How? Why me? What have I done to be HIV-positive? Nobody had time for me and I was left all by myself with the baby inside of me. It felt like the world was against me, and all I could think was that now my life had a clear cut end point because being HIV-positive was all I knew and all I could think was that I was going to die.
I went home and told my mother about my diagnosis and my fears. My mother gave me support, but I wasn't sure it was enough for the pain I felt inside. I started to look for answers to my questions but there was nothing. Soon after I gave birth to my son who was, luckily, born HIV negative. In 2005 I got sick as my CD4 count was very low -- only two! (i) I was so afraid! I felt helpless because I still didn't know what to do or how to take care of my body. It turned out I had Tuberculosis -- my skin turned black, my hair started falling out, my nails turned gray and I was in a wheelchair. People hardly recognized me. I was dying. Luckily, I started on antiretroviral medicines that saved my life.
By 2006 I had learned about PMTCT (prevention of mother-to-child transmission) and that there were methods for HIV-positive women to have healthy babies. In 2007 I gave birth to a healthy, HIV-negative child. Shortly thereafter, I saw an ad for a Mentor Mother position for mothers2mothers, an NGO that helps prevent mother-to-child transmission through peer mentoring and education, and I decided to apply as I felt that providing support and education to other women going through similar experiences to me was something I could do. I wanted to help these women so that they could understand what medication is available and how they can have healthy babies. Most importantly, I didn't want them to live with the same fear I did for almost ten years. Through the training I received, I am now able to live my life positively, living the mothers2mothers vision of saving babies and their mothers.
The mothers2mothers model is so simple and that's why it works so well. We educate, support, and empower mothers living with HIV to keep themselves and their children healthy. Johnson & Johnson partners with mothers2mothers to support the work that I and many other mentor mothers do in South Africa.
For an HIV-positive pregnant woman everything seems so complicated -- but m2m has come up with a simple solution. Pregnant women living with HIV are educated and informed in both groups and one-on-one sessions about how to keep themselves healthy and what steps they can take to have a healthy HIV free baby. The education is done by Mentor Mothers like myself, who have participated in the program and are trained as health educators and role models. Mentor Mothers motivate pregnant women with HIV to adhere to their medicines. We provide a network of support for all mothers in the community. Challenges such as stigma and health worker shortages are addressed as well. Mentor Mothers are powerful agents against the stigma of HIV that causes women to live in fear and prevents them from seeking care. Mentor Mothers work alongside doctors and nurses, filling critical gaps in understaffed health centers and clinics.
Seven years ago I almost lost my life to HIV, but today, HIV has given me a second chance at life. Since I joined m2m, I have been empowered, and in turn I have empowered my clients, children, and my community. Now I am able to live my life to the fullest every day, helping mothers and saving babies to fulfill the m2m vision of a world where babies are free from HIV.
Mothers2mothers is part of the Global Plan to end pediatric AIDS by 2015 and keep mothers alive. To find out how you can be the means to an end, please visit www.m2m.org
(i) CD4 cells - Also known as "helper" T-cells, CD4 cells are attacked by the HIV virus. A CD4 test indicates the health of the immune system and depending on the result, the client may be given ARVs. Currently, the WHO guidelines recommend that people with a CD4 count of less than 350 should be started on treatment. A CD4 count of 2 means that a person's immune system is extremely vulnerable.
Follow Patience Hlengiwe Kweyam on Twitter: www.twitter.com/m2mtweets