Walking from death’s door
Sue doesn’t want her real name used for this story.
There’s a reason — even though HIV was first detected clinically more than 30 years ago, it still carries a stigma in many parts of society.
So, while her family and her church have been supportive as Sue went from a very sick mom to an AIDS patient, she prefers to use a pseudonym.
She knows some people will think she’s a drug user or promiscuous, the stereotypes that still cling to the diagnosis of HIV or AIDS.
She knows they won’t see the mom who has no idea how she contracted the virus, although she suspects it might have beenfrom a blood transfusion during a pregnancy.
She never knew she was HIV-positive; all she knew was that, two years ago, the 43-year-old mother of 11 was living in Edmonton and was very sick.
She had no energy, no appetite and was losing weight.
She was seen by doctors — “so many doctors,” she says now — and, after a battery of tests, the best they could tell her was a CAT scan revealed a cyst on her pancreas.
It wasn’t causing her illness.
Doctors prescribed antibiotics, Gravol and painkillers, among other medications, but none helped.
At one point, still not knowing was was wrong, a doctor told her she would likely die within two years.
As the sole provider for her family, Sue wasn’t going to give up without a fight, she said. So, once she felt a bit better, she moved back to Kamloops, which had been her home for 18 years.
She saw her family doctor, who ran some tests and told her she had AIDS.
Sue remembers the giving the news to her kids, who range in age from eight to 23.
“It was hard to tell them at first. It was scary. It was so unbelievable,” she said.
Sue said it was her kids who gave her the courage to keep getting up every morning and her faith that inspired her to tell them every day she was going to be OK.
She was going to fight the disease — and, she would win.
Kira Gosselin, a health-navigation worker with ASK, said the reality is that when Sue showed up at the wellness centre, she was so sick the worry was she would die.
Sue’s white blood-cell count was just 160; in a healthy person, those cells that control the immune system range between 800 and 1,200.
An AIDS diagnosis happens when the cell count drops to 200.
Sue’s viral-load count, a measure of the amount of HIV in a litre of blood, was three million.
Sue said it was easy to walk into the centre and ask for help.
Her eldest daughter had already made contact because, with mom too sick to do much more than get up in the morning, the family was at risk of losing their home.
They needed food in the cupboards.
They simply needed help.
“I was at the end of my rope,” Sue said, “and then I met Kira.”
Gosselin gave her information about the disease and its treatment.
Others in the agency helped resolve the housing issue and got the family assistance from the Kamloops Food Bank and the Salvation Army.
Gosselin drove Sue to St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver every couple of months for checkups.
The first time they went, Sue was too weak to walk, so Gosselin pushed her in a wheelchair.
That day, Sue started the anti-retroviral therapy used to treat AIDS.
Two weeks ago, the pair made their seventh trip down to the Vancouver doctors but, this time, having seen Sue slowly regaining some energy and weight, they dared to bet on what her viral count would be.
Neither was right.
The doctor turned his computer screen so the women could see the graph recording Sue’s viral count — and they immediately saw it had dropped to the point that it is now considered undetectable.
“We were just hooting and hollering in St. Paul’s,” Gosselin said.
“I just felt so honoured to be there and to have shared this with her.”
Gosselin credits the team at the centre, who all worked to “keep the family together and safe.”
Sue agreed with the value of the ASK contriubution — but added that also helping her were her children and her faith.
A deeply religious woman, Sue grew up in a big family and wanted to have the same.
She wants to be there as they finish school, become adults and start their own lives.
“My kids have all been working together with me during all this,” Sue said. “And, finally, I can actually live my life.”