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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (+63) 9287854244 and (+63) 9157972229.
“Bata pa nga. Pero andiyan na ‘yan (He’s still young. But that’s already there).”
That, in not so many words, summed up Aling Tilda’s* feelings about this new “pangyayari (development)” in her son Rod’s* life.
“Andiyan na ‘yan,” she repeated wryly, as she clutched a black bag containing some documents.
STILL A CHILD
The treatment hub was abuzz that day.
News had it that, supposedly, a 16-year-old boy was in the area, getting his baseline tests. Other Filipinos living with HIV, who were at the hub at that time – for doctors’ consultation, or to have their CD4 count, or to get supplies of their antiretroviral medicines, or simply to support other people living with HIV (PLHIVs) – were curious. Many of them are in their 20s – the age group considered as the most affected by the spread of HIV in the country. And so seeing a PLHIV who is under 20 is (for the lack of better word) peculiar, even surprising at that.
Questions abound among the PLHIVs; most of them asked in whispers.
“Was he born with it?”
“Is he a ‘DOTA boy’?”**
“Do his parents know?”
“Sino kasama niya (Who is he with)?”
“Is he sickly already?”
“Cutie ba (Is he cute)?”
Et cetera, et cetera…
All of the questions were ended with: “Where is he?”, or “I wanna see him!”
That teenager being talked about is Rod.
And no, he isn’t even 16 yet. Rod is 14 years old; and he is still in Grade 6.
Wearing a loose white T-shirt, baggy basketball shorts in white-and-black stripes, and plastic slippers, Rod was lanky – skinny, even. He wasn’t even five feet tall. And now and then, after looking at his reflection (on the glass windows of the hub), he would run his fingers through his hair, as if to make sure his hair is in place.
Since he’s a minor, Aling Tilda, Rod’s mother, was with him when he visited the hub. She was wearing a plain yellow T-shirt topping somewhat tight-fitting jeans that day. With her curly hair pulled in a ponytail, with some strands falling on her forehead, she looked harried. And she looked cautious, too, with her eyes checking people out, and then immediately avoiding the stares of the people who see her looking at them. She had a black shoulder bag with her, held closely against her body; it contained her son’s documents.
Yes, Aling Tilda said, she was aware of the chatter that came with the curiosity about her son. It was hard to ignore. When her son was getting a chest X-ray, for instance, and while she was sitting with the PLHIVs to wait for him, her son was the topic of conversation; people did not know she was the mother of the boy they were discussing.
She could hear them talk about “‘yung batang lalaki (a boy).”
She didn’t know what to say; or if she should say anything at all. So she just sat there, looking at people; and then averting her eyes when she saw them look back at her.
IN THE BEGINNING…
Rod – and his whole family – only knew about his HIV status a few days ago.
Apparently, Rod told his father he had sex with gay men, admitting that the money he gets from them, he uses to pay for his luho (vices), including playing DOTA, to buying whatever tickles his fancy. As soon as his disclosure, his father took him to the barangay health center nearest their house***.
“Ayun, sabi ng tao doon, may sakit nga raw (And there, the person working there said that he is sick),” Aling Tilda, Rod’s mother, said. “Noong isang linggo lang ‘yun; kasisimula pa lang ng taon (That was just last year; the year has just started).”
Aling Tilda is, at least for now, more confused than anything else.
She admitted not understanding her son’s condition. She could not even say “HIV”, constantly referring to what Rod has as just “sakit (sickness).”
“Sabi naman nila, ‘di pa sigurado. Kasi wala pang… ‘yung isang test daw, para masigurado na meron talaga (But they said it isn’t sure yet. This is because they need to have another test to make sure that he’s really sick),” she said, referring to the result of the confirmatory test.
In the Philippines, there is a so-called and much-criticized “waiting period”. Those who get tested are (usually) given the rapid test first (after a pre-test counseling, as mandated by the Republic Act 8504 or AIDS Law). If their result is non-reactive, it is recommended that they return some three months after their suspected risk exposure for a follow-up test; but if their result is reactive, the blood sample taken from them is forwarded to the STD/AIDS Cooperative Central Laboratory (SACCL) of San Lazaro Hospital (in Metro Manila) for a more comprehensive test to be done to confirm the result. This step – the confirmatory test – is what ascertains if a person is “positive” or “negative”.
When asked why she already brought Rod to the hub, considering that his status is not even confirmed yet, Aling Tilda shrugged. “Binigyan kami ng referral ng doctor eh. Pumunta na raw kami rito (The doctor referred us here. We were told we should already come here).”
Her husband had to go to work, as a contractual employee; while Aling Tilda had nothing to do. And so she had to accompany Rod.
And then, heavily sighing: “Pero pinapabalik kami sa February 13 daw (But we were told to return to the barangay health center on the 13th of February),” Aling Tilda said.
Turning to Rod: “Sa 13 ka pinapabalik, ‘di ba (You were told to return on the 13th, right)?”
Rod just nodded.
Then, with another heavy sigh, Aling Tilda said: “Sana lang sa 13 makita na wala pala siyang sakit. Negative ‘yung resulta ba (I hope that on the 13th, they see he isn’t sick. That the result of the test will be negative).”
CAUSES OF DESPAIR
A woman who worked at the hub approached Aling Tilda, telling her of the necessity for Rod to attend a session that will make him better understand his HIV status. Since he is a minor, Aling Tilda’s presence was also required.
“May bayad ba ‘yan (Do we have to pay to attend that)?” she asked.
The hub worker shook her head. “Libre po (It’s free).” And then, handing Aling Tilda an attendance sheet, she ordered: “Isulat nyo pangalan nyo rito (Write your name here).”
Aling Tilda looked embarrassed. With a low voice, almost a whisper, she said: “‘Di ako marunong magsulat (I don’t know how to write)…”
The hub worker volunteered to do the writing for her. And then, as part of the attendance sheet, she asked: “Ano po mobile phone ninyo (What’s your mobile phone number)?”
“Wala kaming mobile. Wala kaming numbers (We don’t have mobile phones. We don’t have contact numbers).”
The hub worker skipped portions of the attendance sheet. “Sige po, pirma na lang (Okay then, just sign your name on the document),” she said.
Aling Tilda almost looked panicky, eyes growing big as she was handed the pen. “Paanong pirma (How do I sign)?” she asked.
“Kahit paano lang po (You can sign however you want to),” the hub worker said.
Aling Tilda scribbled something unintelligible. “Puwede na ‘yan (Will that do)?”
Then, as soon as the hub worker left, she continued narrating. “Sabi nila, puwede nilang bigyan ng test si Rod dito. Pero magbabayad daw kami ng P500. Wala kaming ganyan. Kaya maghihintay na lang kami (We were told that they can test Rod here. But we have to pay P500 for the test. We don’t have that. So we’ll just wait).”
But the antiretroviral medicines are “free”, someone beside her said to her.
“Sabi sa amin magbabayad daw kami ng PhilHealth (But we were told to pay PhilHealth),” she said. She shook her head; and then gave a heavy sigh.
LOVE IS LOVE
They were standing in front of the consultation room after Rod was told to wait for a few hours before the results of his lab tests will be released when Rod finally said something to his mother. “Gutom na ako (I’m hungry),” he said, removing his mask as he started patting his mother’s front pockets.
Aling Tilda frowned, tapping her son’s hand away. Then she opened her bag, took P50 from inside, and handed this to Rod. “Ayan (There you go),” she said. “Ewan ko kung saan ka bibili ng pagkain dito (But I don’t know where you can buy food in this place).”
Told of the cafeteria in the hub, Rod left after he was given direction.
Aling Tilda stayed. Then, after rubbing her eyes, she said: “Bunso ‘yan. Tatlo sila magkakapatid. Lalaki lahat (Rod is the youngest. There are three of them. All boys).”
She sighed. “‘Yung mga kuya, di tinest (The elder brothers, they were not tested).”
Asked how she feels about what happened to Rod, she was straightforward. “Andiyan na ‘yan (That’s already there).” Then, with a sigh, and as if catching herself, she added: “Pero sana nga wala (But we hope it is really nothing).”
Rod was back almost immediately, handing Aling Tilda loose change. “Mahal ang pagkain dito (Food is expensive here),” he said. “Gusto ko sana kumain, ang mahal naman (I wanted to eat, but the goods they sell are expensive).”
He then proceeded to open the plastic mini-cup of ube ice cream he had with him, immediately spooning some into his mouth.
“Sasakit tiyan mo niyan (You’ll have upset stomach),” Aling Tilda reprimanded. “Dapat kumain ka muna (You should eat something substantial first).”
With one hand holding the plastic mini-cup of ube ice cream, Rod’s other hand reached into the front pocket of his short pants. “May biscuit naman ako (I have biscuits),” he said.
Aling Tilda reached out to rub Rod’s arm. He let her, still busy spooning ice cream into his mouth. He was enjoying every spoonful.
“Magbabago ba ang turing ninyo kay Rod ngayon (Will your treatment of Rod change now)?” she was asked.
She looked at Rod, misty-eyed. “Anak ko ‘yan (He’s my child).” And then she said again, this time as if to herself: “At andiyan na ‘yan (And that’s already there).”
*NAMES CHANGED AS REQUESTED TO PROTECT THE INTERVIEWEES’ PRIVACY
**THIS REFERS TO THE DEFENSE OF THE ANCIENTS, A MULTIPLE-PLAYER COMPUTER GAME POPULAR AMONG YOUNGER PEOPLE. SUPPOSEDLY, MANY YOUNG BOYS ENGAGE IN SEXUAL ACTIVITY WITH GAY MEN WHO PAY THEM FOR THEIR SEXUAL SERVICES, WITH THE PAYMENT THEN USED TO PAY FOR COMPUTER RENTAL TO PLAY DOTA. A SUCH, THESE YOUNG BOYS ARE REFERRED TO AS “DOTA BOYS”.
***IN THE PHILIPPINES, UNDER REPUBLIC ACT 8504, MINORS ARE NOT ALLOWED TO UNDERGO HIV TESTS UNLESS THEY ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THEIR PARENTS/GUARDIANS, UNLESS A WRITTEN INFORMED CONSENT IS PROVIDED BY THE PARENTS/GUARDIANS, OR UNLESS A COURT ORDERS.