Living, fully, with HIV
Last Updated August 17, 2006
When Keenan Ferreira found out he was HIV positive, it wasn't the news itself that hurt him. It was how it was said, and who said it — his father.
"He said, "Man, you have AIDS. And eventually, you will die," Ferreira recalled. "And when you die, I will bury you. And that's all that I will do for you."
Ferreira, now 33, had just moved back to his hometown of Roseau, in the Commonwealth of Dominica, from the U.S. Virgin Islands. He had been looking to rebuild his relationship with his father, a doctor.
The two had a rough history — his father left his mother before he was born. A few months later, Ferreira's mother left him with his grandmother, who raised him. But Ferreira was optimistic he could reconnect with his father.
When Ferreira told his father he was gay, his father's response was to make him take an AIDS test. Once the results were in, the divide between them became permanent, Ferreira said.
"I felt hurt, but what really killed me were the words," said Ferreira, who was in Toronto for the International AIDS Conference. "That was what killed me. Knowing that I was HIV-positive, that I'm going to die, did not hurt me as much."
Ferreira realized he had contracted the disease through unprotected sex.
"I said to myself, 'Well this is it,' " he said. 'I only have a few more years to live.' "
In the Caribbean, he said, HIV is a "not-talked-about issue," an attitude he believes stems from a culture of homophobia.
His father disowned him, he said, and denied knowing who he was when people would ask about his son.
"He said, don't talk to him about that child, because he doesn't know about that child," Ferreira said. "And I look so much like him. Everybody who sees me knows I'm his son. It's really painful."
Ferreira didn't tell his friends or family members that he was HIV-positive right away — his father did that for him, he said. When people began to know his secret, he said, he felt he couldn't face them.
"It spread like wildfire," Ferreira said. "There were times I used to run away from people," he said. "If I'm walking down the street, and I saw someone coming who knows me, I would dodge them. I don't do it anymore. I walk in front of them, look them straight in the eyes, because I have gained that self-confidence in me — that I am not dying, and [that] I'm going to be an example to others."
Coping with the disease
Ferreira is one of the lucky ones. Looking at him, it's impossible to know he has had a debilitating, incurable virus running through his veins for 13 years. He smiles often and has lots of energy.
He is on anti-viral drugs, or ARVs, which have been keeping him alive and well. Each day, he takes 10 tablets — five in the morning, five at night. "I'm so used to it," he said. "It's like a diabetic tablet."
He said the virus has only made him sick once. A few years ago, he said, he had ulcerous sores in his stomach. And, at one time, the virus caused his hair to fall out. Other than that, he said, he's never suffered any sicknesses or side-effects.
Every six months, he goes to the doctor to check his CD4 (a type of white blood cell) count, which tells him the strength of his immune system. But he hasn't had tested his viral load — a measurement of the amount of virus in the bloodstream — since he was diagnosed. It's something he should have done at least once a year, but he said he can't afford the $2,000 US fee.
He said the doctors say he's in good shape. He said that HIV, most of the time, isn't an issue for him. But, he doesn't forget its vicious nature.
Ferreira said he has watched many of his friends wither away and die from the disease. He said watching them deteriorate was a painful experience. During their last days in the hospital, he would visit them to bathe and care for them. When they died, it made him wonder whether he would be next.
"I wish they were here right now," he said. "They were all my age."
Life goes on
Thanks to medical breakthroughs, such as ARVs, finding out you're HIV-positive is no longer a death sentence. Ferreira knows that better than most.
Several of his friends who know his status have accepted him as he is. He is now living with a friend and his family — who have in turn become his family. He keeps in touch with his mother and most of his six siblings, who have also embraced him, virus and all.
And, he has been in a relationship with another HIV positive man for two years. He says they still take precautions to protect themselves.
Now, he helps others with HIV as a counsellor with Life Goes On Dominica, the aptly named organization that supports people living with and affected by AIDS in Dominica.
He counsels people before and after they get tested for HIV, and helps those who know their status to take their medications properly.
He said he does it for "the joy I get when a person is helped — when they go from suicidal to wanting to live."
Ferreira has been volunteering full-time with the organization for the past two years.
"When I decided to join, we didn't have an (HIV/AIDS) organization in Dominica. Now we have an organization that's about to be registered, with a membership of 24."
He says his job helps keep him going. He says he doesn't know how long he will be able to live, but he plans on living past the age of 60.
"I've got so many plans, I just leave it open," he said. "I'm up for the challenge."
Ferreira says he's optimistic that events such as the international AIDS conference will help to further the battle against the disease.
"If it keeps coming up, at least twice a night, people will at least show a little interest," he says. "Right now, HIV and AIDS has been talked about only when it is World AIDS Day."
And looking back, Ferreira said, getting infected with HIV has been a positive thing for him. He says the virus helped him find his purpose and changed his perspective.
"I have another life, another opportunity to live," he said, "which I'm making the best of."
- Main page
- Stephen Lewis, Q&A, the granny campaign
- AIDS Vaccine: The search continues
- History of AIDS treatment
- Children and AIDS
- Aboriginals: Canada's most vulnerable population
- Living, fully, with HIV - a Caribbean man's story
- CBC stories
AIDS 2006: The 16th International AIDS Conference
- Pat Senson's AIDS Conference blog
- AIDS Conference diary
- by Julie Hard
- Governor General Michaëlle Jean's opening speech
- Generic AIDS drugs: What happened to Canada's pledge to Africa?
- by Robert Sheppard
- Women and HIV: The promise of microbicides
- by Robert Sheppard
- The Face of AIDS
- by Mike Quinn
- A Zambian woman's fight against HIV/AIDS
- by Madelaine Drohan
- A tree marks the life of Normand
- by Martin O'Malley
- My life with HIV, a series of photo galleries by patients of Médecins Sans Frontières
- International AIDS Vaccine Initiative
- 16th International Aids Conference
- Africa's Orphaned and Vulnerable Generations (UNICEF report)
(Note: CBC does not endorse and is not responsible for the content of external sites - links will open in new window)