Confessions of a Cuban Living with HIV

By Ivett de las Mercedes

Onin and his partner.

HAVANA TIMES — Onin Reyes was diagnosed with HIV six years ago and he doesn’t lose hope that a cure will be discovered for his illness.

HT: When did you find out that you were HIV positive?

Onin Reyes: In October 2010, I was hired as a kitchen assistant at an agricultural center in Artemisa. Among the other documents they were asking me to present, was the pre-employment check over. I had a blood test done, including a blood test for AIDs because it was a requirement. The first test (quick kit) came out positive. Then the doctors made an appointment with me and told me not to be alarmed. I repeated the test and on February 11, 2011, I was diagnosed HIV-positive.

I never found out who it was that infected me, I am very aware of the fact the responsibility was mine alone, I should have had protected sex and I didn’t. I didn’t demand that my partners protect themselves either. The chain of people who have had sexual relations with the HIV positive person are very carefully controlled in the health sector. They ask for your recent five year history, there are a lot of people who have HIV and don’t know it. The people I had sex with were a lot older, sometimes they were secret encounters, we never talked about condoms, I knew that AIDs existed as well a lot of other sexually transmitted infections and even so, I didn’t take precautions.

HT: Does a doctor make an appointment with you at the health center to give you your results or do they come to your house?

OR: Waiting for my second blood test to confirm the results, I began to get really sick and turned yellow, I had Viral Hepatitis. I had to rest for a month and a half. When I recovered, a nurse came to my house with an epidemiologist, as soon as I saw them I knew. They explained the disease and its stages to me, the appointments with a psychologist, dentist, the special diet – made up of beef, chicken, fish, eggs and milk, routine blood tests every six months to see my CD4 count and the state of my immune system. I am healthy. It was very painful to find out that I was infected; I would like not to remember that afternoon. Time came to a halt and I asked myself so many questions, everything came crashing down inside me, I thought this is the way everyone feels when they are given the same result. I thought about my future, my mother, society and rejection.

HT: Who did you tell when they repeated the second test?

OR: I told three of my friends.  I still didn’t want to say anything to my mother until I had the final results. I was in a lot of pain and didn’t want to do anything at that time; I didn’t even leave the house. I remember that when I finished the first blood test, I felt like I was in front of a staircase with broken and healthy steps, I went up instead of falling.

The medications.

HT: What was your mother’s reaction, the people who know you and your neighbors?

OR: My mother had already realized that something was going on because of my behavior and because I had lost a lot of weight too; mothers know everything. She was very upset and cried a lot. They think that this is the end.  I always knew that I wouldn’t have children because of my sexual preference, but I wanted nieces and nephews, and that’s affected me a lot, because not everyone understands this disease. I also thought about the people who greeted me with a hug, a handshake or a kiss on the cheek and what really blew me away was the fact that society is very well prepared about this and more so than we patients sometimes. I have never felt rejected and my family love me and support me in everything.

HT: Were you admitted to the Los Cocos Sanatorium in Santiago de las Vegas?

OR: I never went to the Sanatorium, but I have heard a lot about the lives patients have there. I was afraid to be far from my loved ones, in a different province. I read a book by Doctor Jorge Perez Avila called “AIDs: new confessions to a doctor” and I really identified with every account. It’s excellent; I recommend it because it tells you about the conflicts that children, parents and family in general suffer when they live with HIV-positive people and the efforts taken to reduce cases of this disease.

I was admitted to the Pedro Kouri Institute (IPK) a few years ago because of liver problems and I watched how other patients who had AIDs passed away, others were in a very bad state. The majority of them don’t take antiretroviral drugs (which we don’t have to pay a cent for, all we have to do is pick them up from the IPK). Thanks to these drugs, I have managed to extend my life expectancy and to reduce the risk of developing opportunistic infections.  Getting used to them wasn’t an easy task: I used to vomit, I was bed-ridden and very weak for a few months, they triggered some kind of medication-induced gastritis and I got really skinny, but the body adapts.

HT: How did you meet your current partner?

OR: In a hospital, we both had a relative staying in the hospital, as soon as we exchanged glances we dared to strike up a conversation. We were seeing each other for two months and I knew that he was compatible with me.  Nobody likes to be rejected and I have always been very honest. I decided to tell him that I had AIDs over the phone so as not to see his face, he is a very special person to me. I liked his response which I still have imprinted on my memory: “Don’t feel discriminated because we all have the right to smile, breath and walk through life.” We have been together for five years and we understand each other. Above everything else, we protect ourselves. He is healthy.

HT: What do you think about the people who don’t understand this disease?

The Aids prevention campaign.

OR: The most important thing is to be disciplined and use a condom for all sexual activities which include penetration. When a person gets infected with HIV, it’s pretty certain that they will have AIDs at some point of their life. A lot of people don’t show symptoms for a long time, the only way to avoid getting AIDs is to prevent getting infected with HIV. The only way to pass on this virus is through bodily fluids such as blood and genital secretions, it isn’t transmitted via the air, saliva, kissing on the cheek, holding hands, hugging or sharing utensils like glasses or spoons.

HT: Are you involved in a health promotion project?

OR: Here in Artemisa, these projects have disappeared and we know that they are based on volunteers and that there isn’t a lot of time because of the hectic lives we lead. A few years ago, we came together and gave a conference, there was self-help, we gave out stickers, a red bow as a symbol of consciousness. We invited people in the community, although many of them are reluctant to take part in such matters.

HT: If a cure for this disease was suddenly discovered? How would you feel?

OR: I would be the happiest person in the world. You make life goals, projects, and dreams. I have a lot of faith that this day will come, and if I’m not here to see it but the idea that others will be cured makes me very happy. There are a lot of people who get infected daily because of a lack of caution and other people’s lack of awareness. Being cured would complete my happiness.

  • Eden Wong

    Sorry for your situation Onin, that’s awful, but kudos to you for taking responsibility for dumb actions on your part. Many of your peers don’t.

    Only bright side: Thank God you’re in Cuba. In almost every other developing country on the planet you’d be totally screwed.

    All the best to you and best wishes for continued health.