My second chance at life


Apikali Waseilovoni’s eyes still well with tears when she recounts the day she lost her 23-month-old baby girl to HIV/AIDS.

‘It was May 21, 2003, on a Sunday. I will never forget that day because she died in my arms. It came as a shock to me because the previous night, we had so much fun playing together and she was just starting to learn words,’ Apikali recalled. ‘The next morning whilst I was at a neighbour’s house running an errand, I was told that Ili, my daughter, needed to go to hospital as soon as possible. I ran home to find her eyes rolled into their sockets and her fingers and hands rolling as if she was suffering from an epileptic attack. When we reached the Colonial War Memorial Hospital, she was immediately attended to and administered drugs to try to save her but I knew from the look of things that she would not survive,’ she said. ‘For only a brief moment, she was herself again so my husband and I grabbed that chance to apologise to her and seek her forgiveness.’

It seemed like God had allowed that opportunity because right after we did that, she smiled and breathed her last,’ said Apikali as she fought tears. ‘I only wished I had known about it sooner because we could have saved Ili,’ she told me with regret.
For the Ovalau woman, the pain of losing her first daughter supersedes the hurt of being infected with HIV/AIDS by the man she married at the age of 18. ‘My status was revealed to me after I took my daughter, who was then just seven months old, to hospital and was asked to undertake a blood test along with her,’ she said.

‘When the doctor told me, I did not know much about HIV/AIDS except what I had heard from people and from what was in the media.

‘I was terrified and cried inconsolably in front of the doctor. I thought that there was no hope for me and my daughter; that it would be better off for us to hang ourselves.’

Looking back on that fateful day, Apikali is grateful that the doctor who broke the news firmly counselled her and discouraged her from taking any hasty actions.

‘He told me that I wasn’t alone – that there were other women out there who also had babies and were infected and that there was a support group for people living with HIV/AIDS.’

She said her husband’s reaction to the news was less than supportive.
‘I called him from the hospital to tell him about what the doctor said and he informed me that he knew already.
‘We were in hospital for three days without any visitors before my husband finally turned up with only our clothes,’ she said.

Apikali said when they were discharged from hospital, she and her husband decided not to tell his family, whom they were living with at the time.
‘So when the family asked about Ili’s sickness, we told them that she was malnourished because we feared being rejected and ostracised.’
But when her daughter turned one year and eight months, her father in law confronted them after hearing rumours from relatives about their status.
‘Initially, they reacted with disappointment because we had not told them straight away, but they assured us of their full support and love.
‘After baby died, I went crazy with grief, and it impacted a lot on the already deteriorating relationship with my former husband as well as his family.’
Apikali said they sought counselling with psychotherapist Selina Kuruleca and the Fiji Network Plus (FJNPlus), but nothing could save her marriage.
Despite the heartaches and pain she has endured in the past, Apikali believes the future is still bright for her.
‘Some people think that AIDS is the end of the road, but it isn’t. In fact, after all that, I have now found someone who loves me and appreciates me despite my status,’ she said.

Apikali said her present partner knew of her status when she was still married to her former husband, but what drew them together was the hardship and experiences they had endured from their previous relationships.
‘I tried to warn him off reminding him about my status but he told me that it was my personality and kind heart that he loved, and that he was willing even to be infected with HIV to be with me,’ she said. ‘For me that was something extraordinary; he was willing to sacrifice for love.’ Her partner, who has two children from a previous marriage, was HIV negative until last year when blood tests showed that he is now living with HIV/AIDS.

‘His family and his fellow villagers have given us more support than we had imagined; I now live in their village and am enjoying my life with him,’ she told me. Even her relationship with her mother has improved since the news of her status reached her mother’s village.

‘I remember the first time I met her after my diagnosis. I met her in Nausori Town and I could tell she feared standing next to me.

‘She stood a long way from me, looked at me in horror and asked me whether the rumours were true. I nodded in confirmation and then she said, “I’m really scared of you.”’

While Apikali admits it pained her to see her mother react like that, she chose to understand her mother.

‘I guess she only reacted like that because she lived in a village and knew almost nothing about HIV/AIDS,’ she said. However, a close cousin’s wife took time to explain what HIV/AIDS is to Apikali’s mother and thus set the stage for an emotional mother–daughter reunion.
‘She came back and apologised for her reaction and asked me to bear with her as she was only beginning to grasp what it really meant for me.

‘I’m so glad that not all my relatives deserted me, and I’m even more fortunate because this close cousin’s wife works in HIV/AIDS advocacy and has taken it upon herself to educate my relatives.
‘You know, when I was younger I had always wanted to become a nurse. There was something about how they carried out their duties that really appealed to me.’

She said that while she was unable to fulfil this dream, she was now in a position to do something similar.

‘I’ve come to realise that despite the wrong choices I’ve made in life, I’ve been given another chance by God to do a kind of work similar to what nurses do and that is to tell young people my story so that they can be spared the hardships I went through.’

Since her diagnosis, Apikali has travelled with FJNPlus on HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns throughout Fiji.

‘And the kind of reception I receive from communities is overwhelming. I’m treated like a star, all because my testimony impacts them. God has really been kind to me,’ she said. To Apikali, contracting the HIV/AIDS virus was God’s way of offering a second chance to mend her ways. ‘I’m grabbing it with both hands and I still believe that one day God will heal me or that a cure will be found; this isn’t the end of life at all.’ Her plea, however, is for communities to be more accepting and loving instead of judging those who have been infected with HIV/ AIDS. ‘If it was your child, you would want them to be well or looked after and not rejected. This is exactly what we, people living with HIV/AIDS, hope for,’ Apikali said.