This is part of “More than a Number”, which Outrage Magazine launched on March 1, 2013 as a move eyed 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.
Sometime in the 1980s, “we knew of HIV and AIDS – though not really,” said Shola Luna, who was then in the US as an undocumented immigrant. “I was working (illegally then), selling cosmetics at West Hollywood, eventually moving to New York to work as a make-up artist.” In a way, “guilty rin ako noon (I was also guilty then) of discriminating those who may be HIV-positive; like many, I also believed that when you’re healthy-looking, you’re really okay, so no condoms were used when having sex with them.”
Shola had three live-in partners in New York. The first was a Jewish guy, who wrote her a song (called “Asian Eyes”) and who was “healthy-looking, so our sexual contacts were unsafe”. The second was an Italian guy “who was confused – yet I still lived with him for two years, and in those times, we also had unprotected sex.”
She was with his third boyfriend in New York – a “White Anglo-Saxon American, who was 6’4” tall, had blue eyes… and he cooked for me,” Shola recalled – when she noted he kept getting sick. “I asked him: ‘Why are you sick all the time?’ But of course, he couldn’t provide an answer. He didn’t know his HIV status.”
It was while she was with her third boyfriend when Shola’s application for migration needed to be processed, and so – in January 1994 – she had to return to the Philippines.
Little did she know then that only a few weeks later, specifically on March 18, 1994, her world would completely change.
Shola could still clearly recall how she was asked to return to the US Embassy for her medical clearance, and then while there, she was told that her application was nullified because of her HIV positive status.
“At that time, I asked: ‘Bakit ako? Paano na ang Amerika ko? Ano ang sasabihin ko sa family ko?’ (Why me? What will happen to my American dreams? What do I tell my family?),” Shola said. “I didn’t even know where to go… I walked home to Parañaque from the US Embassy; I wanted to think; I didn’t even notice I was walking endlessly…”
Shola blamed her White Anglo-Saxon American boyfriend then. “I called him then – nagmura ako (I cursed him). But he didn’t even know his status then.”
She cut her connection with him when she asked him to return her stuff – and which he did. “I haven’t had news from him since then.”
After she tested HIV positive, Shola may have been depressed, but she didn’t necessarily closely look after herself. “I continued working, and we had shows at night,” she said. After approximately a year, she noticed that “ang laki ng pinayat ko, naghihina ako madalas… noon, nawawala na ang ganda ko (I lost a lot of weight, I was always feeling weak… at that time, I was losing my beauty),” she said.
And so, in 1996, she went to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM).
The very first day she went, she was confined, “and because of the lack of information then, my sister was afraid to come visit or even send a bantay (someone to look after me). Truly, I thought I was already going to die,” Shola recalled.
At that time, “wala pang gamot; ginagamot lang ang opportunistic infections or OIs (treatment was not yet available; doctors just treat the OIs).” And so she became a regular of RITM for a year, “labas-pasok sa RITM kung may naramdaman (in and out of RITM when something was wrong with me).”
It was in 1998 when Shola started her antiretroviral therapy (ART). “I was taking 30 tablets in the morning, and 30 tablets at night,” she said. Eventually, “lumakas ulit… hanggang ngayon nga (I became strong again… even to these days).”
Shola admitted that she may have taken a while dealing with her anger. “Galit ako sa mundo noon (I was angry with the world),” she said. But if there is a lesson she learned, it’s moving on and pushing forward. “I got over it.”
And so now “stigma reduction has become my advocacy,” Shola said.
Shola noted that many in the Philippines, when thinking of HIV, still see the specter of Sarah Jane Salazar (who passed away from AIDS-related illnesses in 2000, though not before a movie inspired by her story was released). “Marami pa ring misconceptions, kaya marami pa ring discrimination (misconceptions still abound, so discrimination remains common).” And since “I now know what it is really all about, I want to be able to share the knowledge I have.”
A lesson she can give other HIV-positive people is the need to focus on looking after oneself. “Kumain ka ng masustansiyang pagkain (Eat healthy). Go to a treatment hub. Laugh – because laughter really is a good medicine. Go back to your spirituality,” she said. “More than anything, this is but a wake-up call for us to know our physical health status.”
For those who are HIV-negative, Shola said that “prevention is better than taking (ARVs), so for those who are still negative and feel they’re invincible and that they won’t get infected, nagkakamali sila (they’re wrong). (Just) use condoms; if there’s none, kiss na lang (just kiss), or kiskisan (rub against each other),” she laughed.
“You know what, being HIV positive is not the end of the world for us who are HIV positive,” Shola said. “Instead, it is but the beginning of a beautiful, positive life.”