At Witkoppen Health and Welfare Centre we run an expanded post-natal program, A FRESH Start - "A Future Realized through Education, Support and Healthcare", funded by Gift of Hope. This is a story about Jennifer (not her real name) and her FRESH Start.
Jennifer's story mirrors that of so many of our FRESH Start moms. A 38 year old Zimbabwean woman, Jennifer is HIV positive and the single mother of three children; a 17 and 14 year old, and a new healthy baby girl, called Gift. This baby is indeed a gift to this appreciative mother - a gift made possible with the help of Witkoppen, Gift of Hope and A FRESH Start.
Jennifer left her native country in 2007, traveling alone to South Africa in search of “greener pastures.” She lives in the local community with her niece, and although she has suffered through periods of unemployment over the years, she is currently working as a housekeeper, earning just enough to make ends meet.
Jennifer first came to Witkoppen to confirm a suspected pregnancy. Surrounded by the stigma and shame of HIV, Jennifer said she “knew” in her gut that she was HIV positive before coming to Witkoppen, but she had ignored it. “I was too afraid to acknowledge it and too ashamed to speak to anyone about it, not even my relatives or neighbors.” Even her partner did not know of her fears.
Her suspicion was confirmed on that first visit to Witkoppen. Following a positive pregnancy test, she received HIV counseling and testing, and despite her suspicions was still “shocked” to learn that she was indeed HIV positive. Her CD4 count was 180, not only putting her at risk, but there was risk of transmitting the virus to her unborn child. With the help of the Witkoppen staff, Jennifer’s fears were quickly put to rest. She was immediately enrolled in care to receive a full complement of prevention of mother to child transmission services, provided with counseling and education, and initiated onto life-saving ART.
Jennifer reflects on her experience that first day at Witkoppen. “The staff was very supportive and friendly. They assured me that if I followed their instructions and remained adherent that I would remain healthy and my baby would be born free of HIV.” Jennifer heeded that advice, attending all of her antenatal clinic visits, adhering consistently to her ART regimen, attending support groups, receiving education about condom use, and building the strength to disclose her status to her partner, who now gives her much needed emotional support.
Seven months later, Jennifer gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, weighing in at a healthy 3.7 kg. When she was just three days old, Jennifer returned with her to Witkoppen, where both mother and baby were enrolled in A FRESH Start. While Jennifer had been very pleased with the care she received throughout her entire time at Witkoppen, her happiest moment was surely at the six week visit, when she learned that her daughter was HIV negative. “I was so nervous the day the test was performed and I waited for the results. But once I saw the results - that my baby was negative - I was very happy.” Never was there a moment where her daughter’s name – “Gift” - had more meaning for this mother. She had indeed been given the greatest gift of all: a healthy baby with a hopeful future.
Jennifer and her baby did not miss a single postnatal visit, and by the time Gift was 18 months old, repeat HIV testing had assured her that Gift remains HIV negative, and regular visits with our clinicians and dietician confirm that her weight gain and development is normal. Jennifer’s health has also been consistently monitored, with a focus on ensuring she remain adherent to her medication. Today her viral load is nearly undetectable and she is managing well on ART, without any serious side effects. A pap smear, a routine test offered to all our mothers, revealed abnormal results and led to a follow up colposcopy procedure, something which would normally have been beyond Jennifer’s financial means. Since then, she has been given the appropriate care and treatment, greatly reducing her risk of cervical cancer, a major health challenge for HIV positive women. Jennifer has also received support and important education about issues such as exclusive breastfeeding, family planning, good parenting and proper nutrition, all of which have made her a stronger, more capable and healthier mother. With her success on ART and counseling from our staff, Jennifer now views HIV like any other chronic and treatable condition, and has overcome the stigma and fear of being HIV positive.
“I have learned so much through A FRESH Start. I get education here...that has been the most important thing. I learned that even if I am HIV positive I must exclusively breastfeed, and continue to take medication for myself and nevaripine for my baby. I learned how to stay healthy…Now I am open to tell anyone (about my HIV status). I can even take my pills in the taxi or anywhere in front of people. Now I know that to have HIV is not the end of the world.”
Thanks to Witkoppen, this special mom has beautiful dreams for her daughter, who has been given a fresh start for a healthy future. With her own lifelong aspirations of becoming a nurse unfulfilled, she now hopes that her little girl will get the education she needs to become a nurse and help others, like she and her daughter have been helped by A FRESH Start.