HIV took hope away – my baby brought it back
Holding her newborn daughter in her arms, Sarah Watson finally allowed herself to believe it was true. After a gruelling 28-hour labour, she was a mum. Tearfully, she handed baby Tahlia over to her husband, Mat, for a cuddle. "We did it," he beamed.
Sarah, from Guildford, Surrey, was holding the healthy baby she never thought she'd have.
In 1993, aged 17, she was infected with HIV by her then boyfriend, Dave*. It was only when she accidentally fell pregnant that a blood test revealed she had the virus. Unbeknown to Sarah, her 'perfect' boyfriend had been using drugs and sharing needles.
"My world fell apart. I was told to terminate my pregnancy because I would either infect my baby or die young and leave my child an orphan," she says.
"I know I should have left Dave, but I felt no one else would understand. HIV was such a shameful thing to have - at least we'd be together."
At the time, doctors told Sarah she was likely to develop full-blown Aids within 10 years, which would ultimately prove to be fatal. They explained there were drugs available to prolong her life, but they had potentially lethal side effects including liver failure and hepatitis. She refused them.
Her parents and younger sister were incredibly supportive, but Sarah had already given up. Spending her days in bed, she stopped looking after herself and her weight plummeted. Eventually she was hospitalised with severe breathing difficulties.
"I had pneumonia and because my immune system was so weak, doctors told my mum I was unlikely to survive," Sarah says. "I was in so much pain - I could hardly breathe or talk. But it finally triggered something inside me - a fight to live."
Slowly, Sarah began to recover and she left hospital a month later. She split with Dave and moved into a flat. When she was strong enough, she did admin work for a window company; when she was sick, she stayed with her parents.
She developed eczema on her arms, and people gossiped that she'd been injecting drugs, which had given her HIV. But Sarah ignored them. There were more important things on her mind.
"If I was going to die, I wanted to cram in as much as possible," Sarah says. "There was so much to live for. I travelled abroad - India, Tunisia, even Australia. I also stopped feeling so angry towards Dave."
For the next seven years, Sarah admits there were tough times, but she was determined to fill her life with positive experiences while she still could. She even started dating again. Although she was nervous about telling potential new boyfriends about her condition, it never scared them away.
"I was always honest with boyfriends before having sex," Sarah explains. "I told them I was HIV-positive, and that as long as we used a condom, they'd be safe. Maybe I was lucky, but I never had a negative reaction."
Sarah was constantly monitored by doctors, but still refused to take medication, believing the risks far outweighed the benefits. It wasn't until the age of 24 that she had a change of heart. By then she was plagued with infections, so she agreed to start taking antiretroviral drugs - which help the immune system recover and had by this point been developed to have fewer side effects. And the treatment was successful. After seven years of being too ill to work, Sarah was strong enough to get a job as a residential care officer, working with troubled youngsters in Woking. She also began voluntary work, going into schools to talk about HIV.
Then, in 2003, Sarah returned to Tunisia for a holiday. While she was there, she met Mat, a car mechanic.
"We spent hours talking by the pool. I really liked him," Sarah smiles. "When I mentioned I spoke in schools, he was curious. So I told him I was HIV-positive - but Mat just asked lots of questions. He wanted to be educated, not to judge.
"He made me feel attractive and interesting. For the rest of the holiday, he grilled me for every piece of information I had. I must have reassured him because by the end of the holiday, we were dating."
For the first year, the couple had a long-distance relationship - Mat lived in Watford, 50 miles away. Then Mat sold his home and moved into Sarah's flat.
And three years after they met, Mat proposed while on holiday in Kenya. In August 2007, they got married in front of 70 guests at a church in Weybridge, Surrey.
"When I was diagnosed, I didn't see a future - but there I was, in love and married. My medication was great and I had every chance at a long healthy life. The only thing missing was a baby," she says.
Sarah talked to her doctors about getting pregnant without endangering Mat, 36, or the baby. She was prescribed special medication to reduce the odds of passing the virus on to an unborn baby through the womb. The doctors explained she could self-inseminate with Mat's sperm, and the baby would only have a one per cent chance of contracting the virus inside her. So the couple decided to go ahead.
"We had to collect Mat's sperm in a pot and then I put it inside me with a syringe," Sarah says. "It wasn't how I'd imagined making a baby, but it was worth it."
After 18 months, Sarah finally fell pregnant. "It felt like a miracle," she beams.
On March 16 this year, the couple's daughter Tahlia was born, weighing 7lb 10oz.
"When I held Tahlia in my arms I was overwhelmed," Sarah says. "Mat and I both burst into tears. Sarah couldn't breastfeed because the virus might have passed on through her milk. As a precaution, Tahlia was given antiretroviral medication for a month, which made her very sick. But blood taken from Tahlia at birth tested negative for HIV and another test three months later was also clear.
"I was so relieved," says Sarah. "I knew there was only a small chance she would be affected, but I was still worried."
"Tahlia is the most precious gift," Sarah says. "And I'm feeling good. Doctors tell me I'll live until I'm 60. I have my baby girl and a wonderful husband. I feel truly blessed."
HIV: THE FACTS
- HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) destroys the body's immune system.
- HIV can be passed on by having sex without a condom, sharing infected needles, or from an HIV-positive mother to baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.
- It's estimated that around 80,000 people are living with HIV in the UK.
- About 30 per cent of people in the UK with HIV do not know they are infected.
- In 2015, women accounted for 37 per cent of people diagnosed with HIV due to a rise in the number of heterosexual people infected.
- Over 18,000 people with HIV have died since the early '80s.