Our family lives in Asia. David was our foster child from Asia. When he came to live with us we were told he was 13 years old and HIV+. We were also told he was very very sick.
We first heard about David in October 2014. A group of people in our city in Asia were working together to try and start a foster home for orphaned children with HIV because many orphanages will not accept children with HIV. David was living in a boarding school for orphans with HIV. He had started getting sick and was losing weight. Some volunteers started noticing how bad he looked and contacted another group foster home in Asia to seek help for him. That foster home was full and they knew we were trying to start one so they contacted us. At that time we had nothing ready for a home and no one who was working on the project with us was able to foster him in their own home for various reasons.
Fast forward to February 2015. The foster home that contacted us started reaching out on their facebook page for help for David. They were looking for an individual or family to foster him and help him get healthy again. At this point he was much sicker than he was in October. He now had frostbite on all 10 of his toes. He needed to be in a hospital but because he had HIV the locals hospitals wouldn’t admit him so he had to go to a private hospital. Those doctors still didn’t want to treat him. It was too expensive for him to stay at the private hospital so the boarding school had him sent to another county hospital, that again would not fully treat him because of his HIV. He had been in and out of the hospital since December. In March, he was placed in a hospital to die. Everyone had given up on him. He had given up on himself.
Beginning the Foster Journey
My husband and I agreed that we needed to have David come live with us. I am a nurse and there was an American doctor in our city who was willing to help us treat David and try and get him healthy again. So we started pursuing bringing him to our city and our home. Finally in April we had all the approval we needed to move him here. On April 15th he arrived to our home.
But let’s talk about hospitals in Asia for a minute. They are very different than hospitals in America or other westernized countries.
First off, in David's country, families do all the care for patients in the hospital. They bathe. They feed. They often give medications. They alert the nurses or doctors when there is a problem. But David had no family.
The boarding school would send someone to take him food daily (no cafeteria or person coming around with trays of food for patients). There were many volunteers that would go visit him to take toys and gifts and encourage him. But when a child is sick and feels unloved and unwanted, there isn’t much hope for healing. He wasn’t eating. He wasn’t drinking. At least not enough to sustain life. Because he was in the “hospice” unit he wasn’t even on an IV for fluids. The medications he was on for his HIV were no longer working. No one thought to change them in the past 3 years when his health started to decline.
On April 13th my husband and the American doctor flew to David’s city and on the 14th they went to his hospital to meet him and take care of the process of transferring him into our care. That night they took him back to their hotel and bathed him. His skin was so dry and leathery and it started peeling off. The next day they all flew back to our city.
They arrived at our home around lunchtime and we got David to eat a few bites of pizza and sip a little water. He said he wasn’t hungry and he just curled up on his new bed. He was very cold. He had no fat or muscle that you could see on his little body. He was emaciated and his cheeks were sunken. He was very depressed and withdrawn. He would barely speak to us. I got a report on all the medications the doctor wanted to start. His heart rate was very fast as was his breathing rate. The doctor left and in a few hours he called back and said he decided we should come to the hospital because he felt like David really needed to be admitted. He was so sick that we weren’t positive that he would make it through the night.
The doctor decided to spend the first night with David in the hospital (again, in this country when a patient is in the hospital, a family member needs to spend the night to care for the patient if they can’t care for themselves). They started him on IV fluids, antibiotics, and oxygen. David had pneumonia. His oxygen levels were in the 70s when he got to the hospital. After 5 days in the hospital, he was well enough to come back to our home. That was also the day we saw the first smile on his face. For five days we had a constant rotation of expats and locals who came to care for this sweet boy. We had all kinds of food brought to try and encourage him to eat. We bribed him as much as we could to eat just a few bites of food every hour. Anything to start stretching his stomach and put some weight back on.
During his hospital stay we found out that his CD4 count was 8. We were shocked. For those who don’t know, a CD4 count of 200 or less means AIDS. He was near death. The doctor changed his HIV meds, and then we just had to wait and see how his body would respond to the new medications.
With Proper Medication he was Getting His Life Back
After he was back in our home, things started to improve. He started tutoring for math and language. He started seeing a counselor weekly. He started having a life as a normal kid. He really enjoyed painting, watching movies, reading books, and riding a bike. He started eating. He started trusting us. He became more engaged and less withdrawn. He smiled – a lot! He became a part of a family. And he thrived because of it.
We still struggled through some medical issues. We struggled through typical pre-teen rebellion and attitudes. We struggled through communication (he didn’t speak any English). We struggled finding foods that he would eat. But all the struggles were worth it in the end.
When we first agreed that he could come live with us, the stipulation was that when he was medically stable he could move to the group foster home that initially contacted us. We were not capable of caring for him long-term (adoption was not an option since he was not listed, and because we are expats we come and go from this country often so we couldn’t commit to long-term fostering) and everyone involved was aware of that, even David.
After 2.5 months in our home he had gained 5lbs and looked so much better. He was a completely different child – physically and emotionally. We flew with him to the city where the group foster home was and stayed with him for a few days. We introduced him to this new “siblings” and the staff at his new home. All of the children in the home have HIV. He was just like the other kids in that aspect. They all took medications twice a day for HIV. He was the oldest and took on that role very well. After about 3.5 months on the new medications we learned that his CD4 count had improved and it was in the 150s (still considered AIDS). We would receive updates via facebook on his progress and we were very thankful that we can continue to watch him grow and change. We also got text message and phone calls from David occasionally. We are so thankful that the Father knew this child and knew his needs. We are thankful that we could be a part of his story. Even just a short chapter. We continued to pray for him and prayed that his healing (physically and emotionally) would continue. The Father allowed him 6 more months of life on this earth after coming to our home. That’s 6 more months of enjoying chicken and ice cream, riding bikes, playing games, and learning the love of a family.
A Turn for the Worse
On Thursday, October 15th, David sent me a text message asking if he could come back to our home. He had done this a few other times in the past. He had a few reasons this time, and I told him that it wasn’t legally possible for him to return to our home at this time. He seemed sad and depressed again. Since leaving our home, he had been admitted to the hospital numerous times for various illnesses, he’d lost a good bit of weight again, but according to his group home, he was still happy and doing ok but occasionally sad. On Sunday, October 18th, I got word that he had once again been admitted to the hospital and was in the ICU. He was diagnosed with pneumonia. When the hospital learned of his HIV that day, they refused to treat him and kicked him out of the ICU and the hospital. The staff at his group home worked hard to find him another hospital that would admit him, and the infectious disease hospital in the city agreed. He was then diagnosed with a fungal lung infection and liver failure. I don’t think any of us expected what would happen next. He had bounced back from so many other illnesses. This time was different though. I think he was so sad and depressed from knowing he couldn’t be adopted and didn’t have a family that was waiting for him that he had lost his will to live.
I woke up at 2:30am on Wednesday, October 21st. I looked at my phone and noticed a message from a friend who was in David’s city visiting him. He said that David was very very ill at this time and the doctors were afraid that he wouldn’t live much longer. I got up and I sat and cried and prayed and read Psalms in my living room. I waited until some other people who were involved in David’s current and past life to wake up to talk through things with them. We were trying to get more information and find out the details. Someone asked if I would go to David’s city to be with him. I started looking up flights and trains to see what the fastest way to get there was. I was waiting until a worker from his group home got to the hospital to give me an update before booking my tickets. At 4:30am that worker said she had received a call and was on her way to the hospital. I asked her to tell him that if he could wait just a few more hours I would be there. Around 6am, I felt more calm than I had all night. I decided to lay back down and try to sleep a little but left my phone in my hand so I would feel it vibrate if I got any new updates. About 5 minutes later I got the message that said “He is gone, very peacefully” with an emoji of a rose. He had passed away just before 6am. It was so so so hard. So many thoughts and feelings that I still can’t even process it all. That day there were just tears and heartache. We asked the Father for healing and while He didn’t heal him physically on this earth we trust that David knew the Father and is now made whole again in heaven. This little boy changed our life and we will never be the same. He spurred us to fight for adults and kids with HIV in this country and to educate others in our home country.
The next day (Thursday) I took a flight to David’s city so I could attend the funeral on Friday. I met up with several people who were very influential and played important roles in David’s short life. The funeral was not like any funeral I’ve ever been too. Partly because even in his death, David was still outcast and not allowed a normal funeral because of his disease. We held a service in the street in the back of a hospital outside this small building where his body was kept until they could take it to the place for cremation. Normally a service would be held at the crematorium but that was not possible. So we made do with what we had. And it was beautiful. Four different nationalities were represented. People from all walks of life and all areas in China. Everyone brought together because of this little boy. He had no mom or dad or relatives present. But we had all become his family. He has influenced hundreds if not thousands with his story. He taught us all about love and servanthood. On Friday afternoon I was invited to the group foster home where David lived as they told the other kids of his death. We all sat and talked and they asked questions and we talked about fun times with David. They had a small table set up with some things of his and the staff gave me some flowers as a thank you for caring for one of their kids.
While David’s story ends here, he will never be forgotten. It is because of him that I continue to press on and fight for adoptions for kids with HIV. David deserved a family. He deserved a future.
David had told us that his biological parents died and he was left at the boarding school at age 3. He doesn’t remember his mom or dad. He had no family that claimed relation to him. Many of the other kids at his old boarding school are “orphans” but have extended family that they would visit on holidays but because of the stigma of their disease throughout Asia the families are not willing to take care of the children. There is a huge fear of HIV in Asia. When David lived with us we could not tell a single local person about his disease. Our landlords could have kicked us out. The lady who was cooking for us (we hired someone to make local dishes for David) would have quit. Our local friends would have abandoned us. My husband’s coworkers would have shunned us. It’s not right and it’s not fair. But for his protection, we told no one. Because we chose not tell people, they would come into our home and show him love. They would touch and hug him. He was “normal”.
In David's Memory
David was almost too old to be adopted. He would have “aged out” at the beginning of 2016 and since the paper work was not started earlier there was nothing that could be done toward finding him a forever family. The plan was for him to live at his foster home for the next few years. They planned to teach him some kind of skill so that he could have a job in the future. At age 13 he only had a 3rd grade level education. In his new foster home he would have continued to learn and go to school, but in a few years he could only go so far in his education. He most likely would have never gone to college because he couldn’t pay for it. Maybe he would have gotten married and had his own family. His children and his wife could have been HIV free if David had continued to take his medicines correctly. I know the group foster home did what they could to love and support him. David could have lived a long time and grown old as long as he took care of himself.
Had David lived longer, his future in Asia would have been very bleak. He would have constantly lived in fear of people learning of his disease and being an outcast in society. He didn’t have the option of being whatever he wanted to be or doing whatever he wanted to do in this country. And that’s because he was an orphan with HIV. Adoption would have given him hope for a future. Hope for a family. Hope for love and acceptance.
I pray that other children do not have his story. We have to help these kids. Do it in memory of David.
This article was graciously shared to RainbowKids with permission by The Lily Project, a grassroots organization in China created by expats who want to see the lives of HIV+ children transformed through education, advocacy, foster care, and adoption.
View waiting children who are HIV+ by clicking on the photolink below: