Absolutely Positive

Infected with HIV as an infant, Ramona Belfiore spent her earliest years in an orphanage in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. Two decades later, she’s on the verge of graduating college, with all her dreams before her.

Me, today at age 23. Photo by Bill Cardoni

By Ramona Belfiore C’11, as told to Leslie Garisto Pfaff

The day I found out I’d gotten into Drew I was so excited that, running back to my house, I fell and scraped both my knees. That’s also the day my anxieties began.

They got worse once I started school, when all the memories sprang up out of nowhere. My mother be­lieved it was because I was on my own again. I remembered Alinka, one of the orphans I grew up with in Romania, and how she’d found seven stray puppies under the stairs; I remembered her dress, and her face, and the color of the puppies, and the smells. I remembered the kids who grew up with me in the orphanage, their faces and their names. And one night I had a dream: I was in a pool, and I turned to the boy next to me and he was very dark skinned. The next morning I told my mother about it, and she said, “We threw a pool party for you guys when you got adopted, and Tavi”—one of the kids from the orphanage, who might have been Romany—“was in the pool next to you.”

Me at age 7 (right), with my sisters Loredana and Mihaela.

I was born in Romania in 1987. I was very, very ill—premature, probably—and I needed a transfusion immediately. When I got sicker, they tested me and found out I was HIV positive. In those days, the hospitals in Romania didn’t have enough money for new needles, so they used the same ones over and over again, which is probably how I was infected.

My mother thinks that my parents had already abandoned me in the hospital before I was diagnosed; they lived on a farm, in a tiny house that had hay on the floor, and they had nine other kids to take care of, and their cattle were dying, and they couldn’t take care of a sick child on top of that. So they left me, assuming that I’d find a good place to live, and I ended up in the orphanage. I try to block out a lot of what I went through in that place. It saved my life, but it put me through a lot.

My mom, Susan Belfiore, around 1993, about a year after she adopted us. I’m on the right, with my siblings, from left, Mihaela, Loredana and Ionel.

It was TV that got me to America. One night in 1990, Susan Belfiore, my adoptive mother, was home with my dad, and she saw a commercial asking for volunteers to come to Romania to rock dying kids who had HIV. She turned to him and said, “I know I’m meant to go there.” So she got on a plane and went to Romania. She’d never been able to have children and, after a few months of being there with me and four other orphans, she called my dad and said, “I want to adopt one of the kids. What do you think?” He said, “How can you choose? Adopt them all.”

First, though, she had to find all of our parents and get their permission to adopt us. The only ones who turned her down were Costine’s parents, so he had to stay in Romania; I don’t think he’s alive anymore. The adoption took a year and a half, since the Romanian government wouldn’t let my mother take four sick kids out of the country—they said we were going to die anyway. But in 1992 we left for America: 2-year-old Loredana; Mihaela and Ionel, who were 3; and 5-year-old me. Three years ago the four of us got tattoos that say “92,” representing the year that we came to the United States.

Around age 8.

When I was 9 and my mother was 45, she got pregnant and gave birth to my little brother, Aidan. Like all little brothers, he’s a pain in the butt, but he’s also very understanding with us. In fact, he sometimes gets upset be­cause he’s the only one of us who doesn’t have HIV. During an interview a few years ago, he said, “If they weren’t here, I’d be a small child living in a very big house.”

I never questioned that Susan and Bill Belfiore were my parents. Eventually, though, my mother sat me down and said, “You have actual parents in Romania somewhere. If you want to know about them, we’re more than glad to help you write them.” I must have written them 10 times before I got my first letter. It listed my siblings’ names, and I suppose it was nice, but I didn’t care. Because as far as I was concerned, the people who’d adopted me and raised me were my parents.

All of us (I’m standing to the right of the surfboard) in the late 1990s on Long Beach Island, N.J.

I’d always known that my siblings and I had HIV: My mom wanted us to believe that having it made us extraordinary, that it was a gift and we were meant to do something with it. But I never really understood it. And then when my brother Ionel was 8 or 9 years old, a child told him he wasn’t going to make it past 10 because he had HIV. My mom found him in the bathroom, crying, and that day she sat us down and told us, “You need to understand that people die of this virus.” That was the day I started to be­come an advocate.

In seventh grade, we were learn­ing about HIV in health class, and while my teacher was speaking, I just stood up and blurted it out: “I have HIV.” I sat right back down, and I heard people’s necks cracking as they turned to look at me. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done (that and the slide at Atlantis—that was bad). But after class, a kid came up to me and said, “You’re so brave.” And that’s when I knew I had to keep talking about it.

My siblings and I do AIDS dance marathons, and I visit schools and talk about my experience. I’m also a family ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Since seventh grade, I’ve known that if  I can make a difference in someone’s life, it’s totally worth it. My mother says that my not being afraid to tell people about being HIV positive has helped my siblings talk about it, too, and that’s what I wanted.

During my first year at Drew, I decided I’d tell all my professors about my status before I started a class, in case something went wrong, like a bloody nose. The school suggested I wear a medical band, but I didn’t want to be marked like that; I’d rather talk about it.

Me with my boyfriend, Matt Fay, at his graduation from Drew last May.

When I meet new people now, I tell them right away that I have HIV. That’s how it was when I met my boyfriend, Matt. Within three hours of knowing him, I said, “I want you to know that I have HIV, but HIV doesn’t have me. I’m stronger than it, and I’m healthy, and I can fight it.” I’d always felt insecure about dating: I was afraid that no one would accept me once they knew about me—that I’d always be “the girlfriend with HIV.” And then I found out that Matt’s mother was afraid because he was dating me, and that just reinforced my fears. It was rough because I’d really fallen for him and didn’t want my virus to be a problem. In fact, I’ve been undetectable since I was 8: My viral load is below 50 (which means that the virus isn’t actively reproducing) and, except when I’ve gotten sick, it’s never really spiked. I’m not on any kind of medication, except vitamins. So I called Matt’s mother, and I said, “Talk to my nurse. She’ll tell you that I’m a different case and that I’m com­pletely healthy.” And now I think she understands that and accepts me, which is fantastic. Matt has cerebral palsy, and we share the same outlook on our “disabilities”: We’ve never regretted what we have, and we know we’re stronger, better people be­cause of it.

Like any college senior, I think a lot about the future: I want to be a professor someday, and I want to teach poetry. I’ve loved poetry since eighth grade, when my teacher introduced us to “Do Not Go Gentle” by Dylan Thomas; I wrote my college essay on it—about how the lines “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” really paralleled my life. And then, at Drew, I took English 9 with Patrick Phillips, and I fell in love with the class—that’s when I knew I wanted to be a teacher, and I wanted to teach poetry, and to be as passionate about it as Professor Phillips is when he teaches.

But the people who’ve inspired me most are my parents. I can tell my mother anything and never doubt that she’ll understand. And both my mom and dad have taught me so much. If I had to choose the single most important thing I’ve learned from them it would have to be not to let anyone treat me differently because I have HIV, to keep my head up high in the darkest hours and to keep fighting. When I call my mother to tell her I’m upset about something, she’ll tell me, “Ramona, you were dying in Romania; you’ve been through a lot worse. You’re going to be fine.” In fact, it was talking to her every night during freshman year that got me through the anxieties that threatened to overwhelm me. She’d tell me, “Life doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” and I know she was right. Because I’m still here and loving it.

All family photos courtesy of the Belfiore family.

My room in Asbury Hall is filled with family photos and collages I’ve made. Photo by Bill Cardoni

9 Responses to “Absolutely Positive”

  1. Ilse Marie says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. You really are an incredible and brave person.

  2. You Know says:

    I already know your story, but whenever I remember it, it inspires me to do something great. Your mother is truly a wonderful person.

  3. Yatin says:

    Dunno nethng about you, but after going through ur story m keen to kno u . I can make sure that u are a brave girl. God bless u.

    I am looking for addmssion this year and thats where i found ur story

  4. Romana, yours is an inspiring story of making the most of and even capitalizing on the virus that found you in Romania. You are such a smart and gifted woman and I very much hope that you have a long and enjoyable life, helping people along the way, just as you have until now. I am also going to share your story on my facebook friend list to 5,000 more people. People need to understand that HIV is not the ‘killer’ it once was and the fact that you have taken Advocacy as a personal Crusade makes your story all the more powerful.

    I hope you have the best possible life, your siblings, too, and you all are able to accomplish the goals you set for yourselves. Best wishes to you.
    Cheers, Karl

  5. Bethany says:

    Ramona, just wanted to write to tell you how much I admire you and your family. You are part of the reason my husband and I have decided to adopt little ones with HIV from Eastern Europe. Your story is such an inspiration to so many. Thank you for speaking out – it is through people like you that the rest of us can learn the truth about pediatric HIV and know that it is very doable to raise a child with the virus. We know that our children can grow up to be healthy, compassionate adults making a difference in the world. Thank you!

    There are MANY children with HIV in institutions right now waiting for international adoptive families. If any readers would like to know more about adopting a child with HIV, please see PositivelyOrphaned.org ~ I am always happy to answer any questions at all.

  6. Linda says:

    Ro, I have known you since you were a little girl who wanted to play with my daughter Mollie. I remember Mollie coming home to say “I have a new best friend named Ramona and she has HIV so you need to talk with her mom about how it’s ok for us to play together”…she continued to tell me that it you’d bring everything you needed if you got cut playing.
    Your mom, Susan was a wonderful educator. She explained how if you two shared a drink Mollie would be safe from HIV…so not to worry if you got your juice mixed up.
    You are your own best advocate and you explained your virus many times to me.
    I recall the times that you and Mollie would make up a game about HIV, AIDS and disabilities (The HAD game) and you had a question and answer card so kids playing would learn the truth about this virus.
    I am proud of you for all you have accomplished in your life…you have much more to offer the world so keep doing those speaches. Stay true to your self and know that I too love you like a mom.
    How far you have come from that sick little girl in Romania to the beautiful and bright young woman you are today. You ROCK RO! Love you…Linda

  7. Mollie says:

    This is an AWESOME article about Ramona. I’ve known her for over ten years now and this really shows who she is. I remember how stressed she was about college but I see her now, as a senior, and how much she’s grown. She may only be four months older than me, but if I had a person I wanted to grow up to be like…it would be her. She’s an amazing human being and anyone who knows her should think themselves blessed.

  8. Henry says:

    Ramona and my daughter are close friends. Ramona is a lovely young woman, strong and brave. She deserves respect and praise for the way she’s living her life and for her courageous outspokenness.
    – Henry

  9. Sheli Jasterzbski says:

    I know Ramona as a close friend. This article depicts her spunk and her loving ways very well. Thank you to Drew magazine for highlighting such a worthwhile person with a great heart.

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