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Billy Santo: ‘Take control of your HIV status, take control of your life’

Living with HIV, Billy Santo says that “your HIV status should not bother people as long as you don’t wrong other people.”

ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF BILLY SANTO

This is part of “More than a Number”, which Outrage Magazine launched on March 1, 2013 to give a human face to those infected and affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the Philippines, what it considers as “an attempt to tell the stories of those whose lives have been touched by HIV and AIDS”. More information about (or – for that matter – to be included in) “More than a Number”, email editor@outragemag.com; or call (+63) 9287854244,  (+63) 9157972229 and (+632) 536-7886.

“It was almost too late for me when I found out that I have HIV,” recalled Billy Santo.

On May 5, 2015, Billy was rushed into a hospital because of PCP Pneumocystis Pneumonia, a serious infection that causes inflammation and fluid buildup in the lungs.

“I can still recall the days before that, when I had to self-medicate and dose myself with non-prescribed antibiotics because I was dealing with infections I didn’t know about. I had night sweats, on-and-off fever, severe weight loss, dry and peeling skin, and rashes all over my body. I was unable to stand, walk, speak, and could hardly hear or see. I had difficult time breathing as if there are hollow blocks on my chests. My cough was never-ending and my temperature was not stabilizing,” he said.

Instead of seeking help, Billy opted to completely hide himself “from my family and never reported for work.”

Looking back, “I had a feeling it was HIV but was never really sure.”

This went on for months until one night, everything went completely dark for him. “I passed out,” he said. “Moments later, when I got my senses back, I found out that I was already in an ambulance.”

Billy reached the emergency room pass midnight in a hospital in Las Pinas City.

There, he remembered a doctor do some examinations before finally pausing to take a closer look at him. She asked: “Bakla ka ba (Are you gay)?” followed by a, “Ilan na mga lalake na nakatalik mo (How many guys have you already slept with)?”

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“I was completely shocked,” he said, “and her question left me dumfounded.”

She repeated herself, so “I had no choice but to answer.”

The doctor then told Billy that it could be AIDS. “It was loud enough for people in the ER to hear,” he said. “I could only wish that the ground would just eat me alive.”

Another doctor who witnessed what happened approached and told Billy to go to RITM in Alabang, supposedly “not only because they suspect me of having AIDS but because he is sure that it is the best care facility for these cases.”

And so Billy found himself at RITM, where – after testing positive for HIV infection – he had to be admitted for almost three months.

Billy Santo said that many of the challenges related to HIV are socially constructed. For instance, “when people think that a PLHIV shouldn’t do this or that. Or take control of your life and tell you what to do and what not to do,” he said. “Some people can be a know-it-all sometimes without being sensitive.”

LIFE FILLED WITH STRUGGLES

But life for Billy hasn’t always been easy.

“I was exposed to sex work at a very early age,” he said. “I was forced to do it out of desperation.”

He was three years old when his mother committed suicide, and when he was nine years old, his father died from drug overdose.

Billy said he was passed on from one relative to another, and was “treated inhumanely”, so that he ended up running away and – thereby – had to fend for himself.

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“My only success,” he said, “lies on my education.” But because he didn’t receive financial support from anyone, “I did what I had to do.”

Looking back, he said “I had numerous sexual encounters with gay men from all walks of life, and matronas just to feed my empty stomach, pay my rent and have allowance while going to school.”.

Billy said that because of how he lived his life, “honestly, I don’t know for sure if I (may) already have had HIV as early as when I was 17. I didn’t know what HIV was back then and never thought of HIV testing to begin with.”

After finishing his schooling and starting to earn a living as a BPO worker, Billy said he led a wanton lifestyle. “I was all over the place. Drinking on weekends, injecting drugs (and sharing needles), PNP, partying like there is no tomorrow, and experiencing the things that I never experienced before,” he said.

He only really paid attention (at first) to HIV when a partner died of AIDS-related complication in 2013. “I got scared,” he said, even if he was in denial. This – all the same – made him realize the “big possibility that I might be infected with the virus.”

When Billy Santo started accepting his status (even posting his story in Facebook), “I became more empowered and resilient,” he said. “I try to learn as much as I could about my condition so I can take care of myself and others. I started to look at life positively and try to prove myself that HIV is not a hindrance for me to be happy. I have equipped myself with the right education and indulged myself in the advocacy.”

LIVING WITH HIV

While in RITM, Billy said he had a slot of questions.

“If I will still reach my dreams, am I still be able to love and be loved, how people in my society will deal with me, if I can still go back to work,” he said. On top of that: “Why me? Are all my sufferings as a person not enough?”

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There was even a point when “I actually blamed God; I asked him why He has forsaken me. Why does he keep on giving me too many problems for me to bear?”

But this also showed people’s real colors to Billy.

Some of his closest gay friends, for instance, started avoiding him, with one even telling him that “Bulok ka na! Ano pa mahihita ko sa iyo (You’re ruined! There’s nothing I can get from you now)?”

His stepsister – with his stepmom – visited him in the hospital, but she was wearing five masks and gloves. And – after he was discharged from the hospital and stayed with them – Billy said “I was treated like a dog. They kept my dishes separated from theirs and hid it in a cabinet wrapped in cloth. They won’t allow me to use the bathroom as they thought urine would infect them. They won’t let me sit on sofas, chairs and ride in a car without putting newspapers and plastic wrappers. Until… they just asked me to leave.”

Billy eventually found his footing with the help of a former colleague who pitied him. “I owe that person a lot,” he said.

Subsequently, he started accepting his status (even posting his story in Facebook). And from “from that day on, I became more empowered and resilient,” he said. “I try to learn as much as I could about my condition so I can take care of myself and others. I started to look at life positively and try to prove myself that HIV is not a hindrance for me to be happy. I have equipped myself with the right education and indulged myself in the advocacy.”

Billy eventually became the marketing and communication officer of The Project Red Ribbon Inc.

LIVING ON

Billy said that many of the challenges related to HIV are socially constructed.

For instance, “when people think that a PLHIV shouldn’t do this or that. Or take control of your life and tell you what to do and what not to do,” he said. “Some people can be a know-it-all sometimes without being sensitive.”

In the end, when dealing with HIV, Billy said that “Your being HIV positive should not bother people as long as you don’t wrong other people,” he ended.

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