My Gift to My Daughter
December 1, 2010
Looking back 13 years ago, it feels like a dream to me. February 1997 – I was just 22 years old then, full of dreams; one of them the American Dream. I had just landed in this wonderful country from Tanzania, ready to start a college education. I was a newlywed with a baby on the way in a new environment. Everything seemed so beautiful and modern – big roads, freeways, shops, huge fancy buildings – all very different from my small city, Dar es Salaam.
Fortunata and Florida at an advocacy event led
by the One Campaign. (Photo: Gary He/AP Images for One Campaign)
Even though I was homesick just hours after arriving, I knew it was exactly what I wanted – to come to the United States and get a degree in journalism, and maybe get a little experience working before going back home and pursuing a career as a journalist. I couldn't wait to learn how to fluently speak English, and be able to hold a conversation without a problem.
I remember my mom insisting that I visit a prenatal clinic as soon as I arrived in Houston, Texas. My then--husband and I both knew that I needed to begin prenatal care as soon as possible since I was almost 30 weeks into my pregnancy and hadn’t yet been to the doctor--I simply didn't have a chance to schedule an appointment back home before the big move.
A few weeks after I arrived in Houston, I found myself looking for the nearest clinic. A friend took me to a neighborhood hospital in Houston, and without any hesitation I agreed to take routine prenatal tests, including an HIV test. I wasn’t worried about HIV. I just prayed that after more than 20 hours of flight from Africa, my unborn baby would be healthy. I went home feeling good, energized, and even more hopeful about my new beginning.
Less than two weeks after my check-up, I received a phone call from the hospital asking me to report to the clinic right away. I assumed they would tell me something about the baby’s positioning. It never crossed my mind that what I was going to face just hours later would be so life-altering. I arrived at the clinic along with my husband, and his friend who gave us a ride. I entered the room, and without wasting any time, the nurse broke the news that changed my life forever: l had tested positive for HIV.
For a minute I thought I was having a bad dream. I was horrified. I felt dizzy--and fell out of my chair. And then I started to cry. I thought about my unborn baby and I cried for her. How would she survive? I cried out of fear of death. I truly believed I would die soon. I cried for my parents. They would be so sad to see me die from AIDS. I cried out of frustration. It was unfair that even though I was a good, modest girl, I was now living with HIV. My life was just beginning. Was it over now?
Florida and Fortunata on Florida's birthday.
(Photo: Fortunata Kasege)
I stepped out of the room in panic and repeated the horrible news to my husband. We spent the next few minutes asking questions regarding our health, how long we had to live, and the future of our unborn baby. The nurse told us treatment was available to keep us healthy, and that we could protect our unborn baby from contracting HIV. I soon began treatment to prevent mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of the virus — treatment that would save my life and the life of my baby.
The journey was not easy. I took the pills every day and night, never missing a dose. I prayed to God for my baby to be born without HIV. It was hard for me to believe such a miracle was possible. At that time in Africa, children who were born from mothers living with HIV became infected as well and died just a few years later. I continued to pray, and hope, and wait.
My healthy seven pound, 13-ounce baby girl was born just a few months later. Her initial test for HIV came back negative, and for the first time in months I was happy and hopeful again. After months of tests and studies, we eventually confirmed that she was HIV-negative. I gave my daughter the gift of health, and I promised God I would be the best mother to the miracle baby he granted me.
Today, my beautiful daughter is a healthy teenager with a bright future ahead of her. Thanks to the treatment I was given during my pregnancy, I’ve had the privilege of raising a healthy child, and I am able to watch as she matures into a productive member of the community. She has become a voice for the families and children affected by this disease, and she is real proof of how advancements in treatment can save the lives of children and parents. I am really proud of her, and I am enjoying every second of my motherhood.
Through my experience living with HIV, and raising a HIV-negative child, I developed a deep desire to become a part of advocacy and community outreach. Today, I use my personal story to educate people
about HIV and AIDS to give hope to those who are infected and affected, and to eliminate stigma and stereotyping. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone, and people need to know that.
Fortunata and her teenage daughter live in Houston, Texas, where Fortunata works to advocate for HIV and AIDS-related causes. The pair continues to share their story across the U.S., inspiring others to take action and support the elimination of pediatric AIDS. Most recently, Fortunata and her daughter visited New York City to advocate on behalf of the ONE Campaign at the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Summit.