The Positive Side

Spring 2003 

The Golden Years

Ana is a 77-year-old grandmother. She bakes cakes, makes clothes for teddy bears and volunteers at her Montreal AIDS community group because, like the people she meets there, Ana is living with HIV.

By Tracy Barber


Q: How is your health, Ana?

A: It’s good. My CD4 count is above 400 and my viral load is undetectable. I’ve done great for the past nine years. Naturally, from time to time I feel down. But I’m doing better than many young people. I think it has to do with my genes and my attitude. I’m optimistic, no matter what.

How did you learn you had HIV?

My husband was in the hospital in 1993, very sick with pneumonia. Dr. Ian Mackay, an AIDS specialist, was on call in the intensive care unit. When he looked at my husband’s chart, he had the idea my husband might have AIDS. I gave permission for the test. It was positive. My husband had had a blood transfusion during major surgery in 1985. But back then he didn’t have any symptoms of HIV infection. At our age, no one was even thinking about it. He also had emphysema. Really, he died of lung cancer.

So after he tested positive, they tested you?

Yes. In a way I knew: We were husband and wife. We had a healthy marriage.

What was it like after you were diagnosed?

It was hard for my husband. He was really depressed. Dr. Mackay was very good to us. He came every night to talk to my husband. I’ll never forget that. He also helped me get over the shock.

It sounds like you have a good relationship with him.

Dr. Mackay is my friend. So is my regular doctor, Dr. McLeod.

How often do you see your regular doctor?

Once a month, sometimes more. Together with the nurses we’re a team. My job is to come for checkups and blood tests and to take my medication regularly, exactly as the doctor prescribes. You must listen to what your doctor says. And always ask questions.

Recently my doctor asked me to meet with a group of first-year medical students, to see if they could make a correct diagnosis. They examined me and asked me questions.

Did they diagnose you correctly?

Not really, but that wasn’t important. At the end, many of them thanked me for participating. They’ll be studying my case for 18 months. I want to do what I can to help.

Do you have any particular health problems now?

I had some problems with my breasts; it was a side effect of a medication I was taking. But we’ve changed that one, so I’m much better now.

Do you use any complementary therapies?

Yes, a few, including one for my arthritis, which is really helping me. I also take vitamin E, for my breasts. My doctor makes sure these don’t interfere with the medicines I’m taking.

Do you attend any support groups?

Yes, I’m good at baking so I bring cake. And I’m good at listening. The other people trust me and tell me what’s in their heart and soul. This way, I’m giving back what I’ve received. I’m very thankful to God that he gave me such a good way to help people. I never judge. I never ask questions that could hurt them. I know God loves me. It helps a lot to have religion and beliefs.

Do the people at your church know you have HIV?

No, acceptance is still far away. I tell who I want to tell; that’s my privilege.

Have you ever met anyone like yourself in the AIDS community?

Yes and no. I’m always the oldest one, but I don’t care. I am part of them. I understand them, and they respect and care for me. I met two young African women who are just like me: strong, hard-working women, with great love for their families. I grew up in Europe, decades before these women were even born, and yet we love each other like sisters raised by the same good mother. We have such beautiful talks together. Women must share their strength and support each other.

What inspires you?

My family’s love and acceptance. We were together when I learned I had HIV and we’ve been together ever since. And volunteering in the AIDS community makes me happy and gives me hope. I can be “grandmother” to people who need family love. My doctor says I will probably die of old age — that makes me live.