Real Life

My amazing Aids survival story

Courageous Jane Bruning has defied the cruel illness she was told would kill her – now she’s compaigning to save other women.

Looking at my six-year-old son Jonathan playing happily, without a care in the world, was the hardest moment of my life.

“I won’t be here for your 10th birthday,” I thought, choking back the tears. “I won’t see you graduate or meet your future wife.”

I had been diagnosed with HIV and told I had three years to live. All I could think about was my boy. I had been living in Tanzania for nine years and absolutely loved it. I led a privileged life and loved the culture, the people and the African sun.

Leaving New Zealand as a naïve 20-year-old, I never imagined this would be the way my life would turn out.

I had gone to Europe for a six-month adventure and got a job as a cook with a tour company. The next two years were spent travelling to different countries. It was a total beer and sex fest. I know that sounds bad now but I was young and didn’t care.

“Can I get a transfer?” I asked my boss one day. “I’ve done this for so long – I need a change.”

He told me about a new company he was setting up in Tanzania. “That’s great,” I said. “Where’s Tanzania?” When I found out it was in Africa, I was thrilled. I fell in love with the country from the moment I arrived. You couldn’t get toilet paper, sugar or milk, but the whole culture fascinated me.

Two years later, I began a relationship with a local man. John was a singer in a band and came from a well-to-do family. Six months later, I was over the moon to be expecting a baby. It was a planned pregnancy. I was 26 by then and I wanted to be a mother.

I wasn’t sure if John and I would work out as a couple but he was a good man and I wanted him to father my child. on 25 August 1984 I gave birth to Jonathan in Nairobi Hospital. A few months later, John went on tour with his band and our relationship became strained. I started to notice a huge cultural difference. John wouldn’t contact me for months on end and he thought this was normal. We decided to end our relationship.

The next couple of years were dedicated to my son. I loved motherhood and our life together was great. My new office job was flexible and I had a nanny to help out. Then I met Joseph.

He worked for my company and I was officially his boss. We started a passionate affair. It was fun and, because of our working relationship, a bit taboo. We kept it a secret and lived for the moment.

I was on the contraceptive pill so I didn’t really think about using condoms. Looking back now, I know I was ignorant. The chain started with Joseph, who didn’t know he had HIV. He passed the deadly disease on to me. But it would be another two years before I would find out.

I will never forget the day I received a phone call telling me Joseph had died of Aids. By then I was engaged to a British man and we had moved to another part of Africa. My new man Dean* and I were so happy together. It wasn’t until Dean got home that I really cried.

“Joseph is dead,” I sobbed as he held me. “We need to get tested for HIV.” I felt his body stiffen.

“You should be more careful with who you sleep with,” he barked, and stormed out of the house. To be honest, I thought Dean had taken the news pretty well. I felt sad for him because he had told me he would never sleep with an African woman because he was worried about Aids.

That night was the worst of my life. I kept waking every half-an-hour thinking, “I’m still alive.” I decided to go for a test but Dean refused to.

“We are together now so it doesn’t matter,” he said. “What’s the point of knowing?”

But I had to know for Jonathan’s sake. The weekend before my results came through was awful. I had numerous anxiety attacks and felt like I was in some sort of time warp. By oonday, I was on edge. As I walked towards the doctor, I could feel the tears stinging my eyes.

“I can’t give you the results now. You need to see a counsellor,” he said as he led me upstairs. We climbed the seven flights because the lift was broken and each step felt like pulling petals off a daisy.

“I’ve got it. I’m clear. I’ve got it. I’m clear,” I said to myself at each step. Eventually, we reached the top and I was led into a room where an elderly nun broke the news. She showed me photos of a man progressively losing weight and then a photo of a gravestone.

“You will have three years. Go home, eat well, sleep lots and never have sex again,” she said.

I managed to persuade Dean to get tested and he too was positive. We moved to England and I fell into a serious depression. Dean didn’t want us to talk about it and I was not allowed to confide in anyone else.

The pressure was too much and we split up. I moved back to New Zealand with Jonathan and started treatment. Although you can’t cure HIV, the treatment has been a success and I have lived long enough to see all the milestones I thought I would miss.

When I saw my son walk down the aisle to marry his lovely bride Esther, it was the happiest day of my life. My doctor has told me I am in better health now than ever and probably won’t die of Aids. That said, I haven’t slept with anyone for the last 12 years and I doubt I’ll ever have sex again.

This began as a conscious choice as I wanted to focus my life on bringing up Jonathan. Also, for many years, I did not think I would live very long. By the time I realised that wasn’t true, I was getting a bit long in the tooth and it all seemed a bit too much of a hassle. How would I bring up my HIV with a potential partner?

Now I’m open about my status and want to tell my story to highlight the fact that this happens to many women. I’m a spokesperson for Positive Women because it concerns me that people don’t seem aware that HIV is a possible consequence of their behaviour. We’re supporting a campaign, sponsored by oAC cosmetics and Durex, encouraging people to pack condoms when they go out. Condoms need to be as much of a toiletry item as a toothbrush, deodorant or soap.

As told to Jonica Bray * Name has been changed. ** For more information about women and HIV/Aids, visit www.positivewomen.org.nz or the Family Planning website (www.fpanz.co.nz).

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