When Catherine Wyatt-Morley tested positive for HIV, she was told she had six years to live.
Nearly two decades later, the mother of three is still alive, still fighting AIDS and finding strength in helping other women like her.
Shock of her life
Wyatt-Morley had a good life - a happy marriage, three lovely children and a good job. Then, in 1994, at a follow-up visit after surgery, her doctor told her she was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
“I could not believe that that is what he said to me. I was married for over 10 years. I had never had sex outside of marriage," she says. "I was completely faithful to my husband. I had never injected a drug. I had never gotten a blood transfusion or anything else. So I was devastated. After all these years, I have yet to find a word in the English language that supersedes the word devastation.”
Wyatt-Morley learned she had contracted the virus from her husband. He was later diagnosed with AIDS and ultimately lost his battle with the disease. She was left alone to deal with the new realities in her life.
“We lost everything: kicked out of my home, lost my job. I was kicked out of my church. My family turned their backs," she remembers. "So what I had to do was begin to prioritize: who was going to take care of my children, how I was actually going to prepare to pay for my own burial, all of those kinds of things.”
Journal of an HIV-positive mother
At that point, she started to write letters to her children.
“I thought I was going to die and leave my children motherless and wanted my children to understand exactly who I was,” she says.
Out of those letters came a book: "AIDS Memoir: Journal of an HIV-Positive Mother."
Half a world away, in Kenya, Pierina Guantai, another HIV positive mother, picked up the book.
“The book was very inspiring to me because I was going through a very difficult moment,” Guantai says. “I’m reading her book and seeing my life reflected in that situation. The book really encouraged me. And Catherine has helped me grow, made me strong, made me feel worthy.”
That sort of feedback inspired Wyatt-Morley to do even more.
War on HIV/AIDS
“Out of my anguish, out of my misery, I gave birth to an organization that started in 1994 in the bedroom of my home,” she says.
The organization, Women on Maintaining Education and Nutrition - the acronym spells WOMEN - provides HIV testing, counseling, support and nutrition services for people infected with, affected by or at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.
“We have a staff of 13," Wyatt-Morley says. "We’re the only organization in the state in which the programs are administered by an African-American woman living with AIDS, so I know very clearly the plight of the individuals we work with and work for.”
Wyatt-Morley has traveled around the world to speak about her experiences. She went to Africa to see the impact of AIDS first hand. She visited monks in Thailand to learn about their holistic approach to AIDS care.
She has become the voice of the voiceless. And always- she offers inspiration for other women living with HIV, like Pierina Guantai, who started her own organization in Nairobi with help from Wyatt-Morley’s group.
Spreading the word
“I go speak with the people living with HIV, encouraging and giving support to families and individuals infected or affected by HIV and AIDS,” Guantai says.
Her main focus is middle class women and children.
“The government in Kenya has developed programs with the support of the international community. The stigma among the middle class is still high, which is preventing people from reaching out for services. Poor people are more willing, more receptive to services than the middle class. The other challenge I think is handling children who have HIV themselves and the orphans left behind when parents die.”
Though they have never met in person, Guantai credits Catherine Wyatt-Morley for the success her group has achieved so far.
Wyatt-Morley believes solidarity among women with HIV/AIDS is essential in their fight against the disease.
“Though we’re located in the south of the United States, we really would like for women around the world to know that they have a sister in the fight," she says. "If they need to communicate, please reach out, we’re here to support in any way we can.”