"A nun at our church told me I could have HIV," remembers Shakeela, a 35-year-old woman living in Lahore, Pakistan. "I asked my husband, 'What is HIV?' "
"My husband said, 'No, she's lying. It's not a disease that can be spread from me to you. It's not that dangerous.' "
Shakeela didn't understand what was happening, but she knew that something was wrong. She had married her husband—a former soldier—in the mid-1990s, and had a little girl in the first year of their marriage. The baby died at 3 months. Over the next few years, her husband grew sick, and eventually sold off many of their possessions to pay for treatments. "He got really thin, but he told me, 'I just have a fever.' "
'My Husband Knew'
Things got worse. "In 1999, I had a baby boy, Waqas. A doctor came and took some of my blood and the baby's," says Shakeela. "Doctor Rashid said I had HIV, and so did my baby."
"My husband knew that I and our baby boy were sick."
One morning not long after, Shakeela and her brother walked into the family's room. "My husband was lying in bed and his army pistol was on the pillow," she says.
"He couldn't bear it. He lost all hope."
Her diagnosis and her husband's suicide were only the beginning of Shakeela's spiraling nightmare. "I learned that my husband had HIV when we married. He knew and didn't tell me." Waqas got sicker, and when he was 1 year old, could no longer hold on. "My baby boy died four months after his father."
With her husband and children gone, and no idea how to cope with a disease she had never heard of but thought was a death sentence, Shakeela despaired. "I used to cry a lot. Everyone said I had only a year to live."
'I Took Hope'
But in 2000, a man named Nazir came to her parents' house, where she went to live after her husband's death. Nazir urged Shakeela to attend a meeting he ran for HIV-positive people.
At first, her parents wouldn't give her permission; it was not traditional for women to go out in public without male relatives. "I said to my parents, 'Please let me go,' " she recalls. "I fought with them, and they finally gave me permission."
At the meeting, Shakeela realized that her illness didn't mean the end of her life. "People there respected me," she says. "Whenever I looked at other HIV-positive people, I took hope." Though antiretroviral drugs were not available in Pakistan at the time, Shakeela learned more about managing her illness.
Shakeela's optimism increased, and even better things were in store for her. At the meetings, she met Fanish, who wasn't HIV-positive. "He fell in love with me and he came to my parents' house. He asked me to marry him again and again."
Shakeela decided to disclose her status. "I clearly told him 'I am HIV-positive,' and he still wanted to marry me," she smiles. "He knew and he accepted me."
Before the couple married, they went for counseling. "Nazir talked about [antiretroviral medications], side effects, problems we might face in the future," Shakeela goes on. "Fanish said, 'No matter what, I want to marry her.' "
The couple decided to have children. Their daughter, now 6, "seemed like she was in good health when she was born," says Shakeela, who decided to breastfeed her. "I said, 'If I don't breastfeed, I don't feel like a real mother.' " When the child was tested at 18 months, she was found to be HIV-positive.
By this time Shakeela was taking medications, but there were none available for children. "Before 2005, I was heartbroken, because there was no HIV medicine for [my daughter]," Shakeela says. "In 2005, I learned there is some, and I had hope for my daughter. I have a healthy life, and she can too."
Though the 6-year-old has not been told her status, she takes HIV medicine in liquid form every day and is in excellent health. "She doesn't want to take it, though," says Shakeela. "She says the taste is sour." The couple's second daughter, now 4, does not have HIV.
Shakeela and her daughter are visited by home care workers, funded by Catholic Relief Services, who make sure patients stay on track with their medicines, which are provided by the Pakistani government. The care plan also provides medicines for other infections that are common in people with HIV, and provides emotional support in a country where people with HIV face enormous stigma.
'Your Turn to Save Lives'
CRS programs throughout the world provide vital antiretroviral medicines and make sure patients take them properly. In Pakistan, CRS began distributing the medications before they were locally available.
"The drugs were supposed to be available, but they weren't," recalls Luc Picard, who was country representative for CRS Pakistan from 1999 to 2004. Picard knew a doctor in India who specialized in HIV treatment and was communicating with a doctor in Lahore. "There was a young man in Lahore who was 24 and dying; the doctor said he wouldn't survive more than one week. That's what triggered me to take the train to India."
As a foreigner, Picard was allowed to travel between India and Pakistan, countries whose tense political situation sometimes prevents Indian or Pakistani citizens from crossing the border. In Delhi, Picard bought antiretroviral medicines and brought them back to Lahore, where several men whose HIV had progressed to full-blown AIDS immediately started taking them. The men, including the 24-year-old, recovered.
"They told me I had saved their lives," recalls Picard. "I said, 'Now it's your turn to save the lives of other people.'"
Hope is now alive in hundreds of patients who, like Shakeela, once faced despair. "I've suffered a lot, but I've survived," Shakeela says now, hugging her 4-year-old daughter. "I have a good life."
Shakeela's Christian faith sustains her as well. "I strongly believe in God. I pray daily, in the morning and evening," she explains. "It's due to God that I am alive and have a family. It's God's blessing."
Laura Sheahen is CRS' regional information officer for Asia. She is based in Cambodia.