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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.