Life Health Features

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Mum floored by shock HIV diagnosis after 30 years of symptoms: ‘My reaction was awful - I just thought I was going to die imminently’

Vanessa was diagnosed with HIV in 2014. Inset Picture Credit: BBC
Vanessa was diagnosed with HIV in 2014. Inset Picture Credit: BBC
Patricia Murphy

Patricia Murphy

A British mother has spoken about the life-altering moment doctors told her she was HIV Positive, which had remained undiagnosed for more than 30 years.

Vanessa Roberts (52) was diagnosed with the virus in 2014, after battling the infection’s symptoms for three decades during which she was married twice and gave birth to two children.

The mum-of-two from Oxford in England discovered she was HIV Positive after a chance blood test, carried out in a Sexual Health Clinic where she had visited to treat oral thrush.

“Over 25 years these symptoms continued until I found out what the cause was,” Vanessa told The Ryan Tubridy Show on RTE Radio 1.

“Infections, chest infections, ear infections, lots of niggly things, persistent coughs, veruccas on my feet, strange oral thrush in my mouth.

“I went many times to see my doctor and various doctors over the years and asked if there was something underlying wrong with me and I asked why I kept getting this and I was told ‘Oh no, some people just get it’.

“It was as if they treated each individual thing but they didn’t look at the whole picture really.

“I was worried there might be something seriously wrong with me

Read more: ‘When you have HIV there’s always this question of when do you tell your date’- Meet the Irish man who created dating app for HIV positive singles

“A couple of years ago, I had thrush and I wanted a doctor’s appointment and I couldn’t get one for a couple of weeks so I took myself to the local sexual health clinic at the hospital, even though thrush isn’t an STI, and I knew that I could go there and get the treatment. They offered me a routine blood screening test and not wanting to be difficult I agreed but I didn’t expect it to show up anything.

“The three days later I got a text at work asking me to call the hospital. I phoned up and they told me I had to return to the hospital immediately. When I pressed them on why they actually told me I was HIV Positive,” she said.

The bereavement councillor revealed that the diagnosis left her deeply upset and in fear of her life.

“I felt terrible for a week. I even considered jumping in front of a bus. I thought I was going to die. I was planning my bucket list and thought about putting my affairs in order.

“My reaction was awful. I just thought I was going to die imminently. Deep down though somewhere in a calm place there was a kind of ‘Oh so that’s it, that explains everything’,” she said.

Vanessa’s husband, her ex-husband and her children had to be tested for the virus following her diagnosis, but fortunately they were all found to be HIV Negative.

Read more: 10 facts you need to know about your sexual health

Taking into consideration the levels of the virus in Vanessa’s blood as well as her sexual and medical history, medics guessed that she had been living with the virus for more than 30 years and was even hospitalised for its symptoms in 1983.

“From the levels in my blood and the state of my immune system they had known that I’d had it for a very long time. Tracing back my medical history and my sexual history, it became apparent that I must have contracted the virus before my first marriage.

“Looking back even further I was actually hospitalised in 1983 with what was then called a mystery virus. They tested me for everything but of course they weren’t testing me for HIV in those days. I left the hospital. My consultants looked at the records and they believe that was shortly after I had contracted HIV.

“I was actually having a relationship with a man from Malawi shortly before that and they suspect that that is where I got it,” said Vanessa.

Despite her upset at the diagnosis, Vanessa revealed that her knowledge of HIV was ill-informed and the realities of living with the condition are much more positive than she imagined.

“All my symptoms disappeared within four weeks of me starting on my medication. I felt much healthier, I’ve got energy now. Really, I feel 100pc better than I felt over the last 20 years.

“I was very, very wrong. My knowledge of HIV went back to the eighties. A television campaign with tombstones falling over, and I was lead to believe that it was a death sentence and extremely contagious.

“Within a week I had an appointment with a consultant and I was told that actually things are very different these days and having HIV won’t affect my life very much at all.

“All the specialists that I’ve seen now, they said with that list of symptoms that I had they would have known straight away that I had HIV. Unfortunately I’m a white, middle aged female. I’ve never injected drugs, I’m not an African person, I’m not a gay man and I didn’t fit the profile, but in actual fact anyone can get HIV so it’s important for everyone to get tested if they are having unprotected sex,” she said.

The mother is getting set to wed for the third time in a fortnight, and said living with HIV has impacted her life in a way she never predicted.

“I actually feel like it’s enriched my life. I feel like a better person, less judgemental, more tolerant. I just feel it’s kind of made my life better in some ways, which sounds crazy. For me personally I feel absolutely fine,” she said.

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