NORTHERN MARIANA ISLANDS PERSON OF THE YEAR: MOSES SABURO

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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (Dec. 31, 1999 – Saipan Tribune)---It is painful enough to face your own death. Coming out in the open admitting that you have AIDS/HIV is another thing.

But for Moses Saburo, the courage to go through these is a mark of a man who must be praised for his efforts to raise awareness in this small island community and finally put a human face to this dreaded disease.

The 39-year-old volunteer for the Department of Public Health's AIDS program conquered his fears when he decided last month to reveal to the public that he is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

In coming out, Moses hopes to help the community battle the growing menace that at present afflicts 33 local residents.

Public health officials estimate that up to 300 people on the island may have been infected with the virus, but are not aware of their conditions -- a situation they fear may lead to an AIDS epidemic in the CNMI if it goes unchecked.

With over 70,000 population, the increasing cases of AIDS/HIV, a disease for which up to this day there is no cure, have continued to alarm government officials and leaders of the community.

Public Health Sec. Joseph Kevin Villagomez has given his support for Moses' proposal to set up a local center for people suffering from AIDS or infected with HIV, similar to that established years ago on Guam.

The plan proposes a venue for these individuals to come together and share their experiences, especially at this time when the stigma attached to AIDS/HIV is still very high.

Moses said in his work as a volunteer he has seen the need for such a center and strong support to be extended by the immediate families and friends of people afflicted with AIDS/HIV.

While waiting for the realization of such a dream, he has vowed to promote awareness in hopes that other people will learn from his experience.

Hard life

Moses' journey to reach this point has not been easy. In several articles published by the Saipan Tribune since coming out, ironically, on Thanksgiving Day last November, he talked about the agony, the anguish and the pain of living with this reality.

It was in 1996 back when he was still studying in the United States that he knew he had been infected with the virus. His girlfriend at that time, Zikie Rodriguez, had just died of AIDS, which shocked him, as he was never told what afflicted her.

Living with an American foster family in San Francisco at that time, he felt all alone when he found out the truth that he almost jumped off Golden Gate to commit suicide, angry at his partner's untrustworthiness.

But the thoughts of his family here on Saipan steered him to continue living. For a year, he worked as a volunteer with the Brotherhood of HIV/AIDS Organization, which helped him understand the disease.

Coming home in January 1998, Moses faced yet another struggle. Along with his closest sister, he tried to hide his condition from his family. He only told them he had cancer after falling seriously ill during his first month on the island.

A few months ago, Moses admitted to his family that what he had was not cancer, but the HIV virus -- a revelation he feared would break apart the family. However, his mother, brothers and sisters understood and have since rallied behind him.

"Now, it is almost two years since I was seriously ill. I am still here, still living, still loving," he said in one interview.

Everyday is a battle against death for Moses. From 285 lbs., his weight has dropped to 159 lbs. while trying to stay alive by faithfully taking medicines prescribed by his doctors.

This process, together with consulting a doctor, counselor and therapist, has cost him between $125,000 to $175,000 in medical bills, which are thankfully being shouldered by Medicare.

Despite being weak due to the side effects from popping a dozen pills and drugs each morning and evening of his life, Moses has drawn strength from people who are waging the same battle.

Difficult choice

He said his decision to come out in public was partly influenced by former Guam Senator George Bamba, who also revealed that he is HIV positive.

But the biggest inspiration for such a brave act was the strong support by his family who want him carry out a campaign in the community to warn people about the dangers of AIDS/HIV.

Characterized by a weakening of the immune system, the AIDS/HIV virus can be transferred through unprotected sex, blood transfusion and use of dirty needles infected with the virus and can strike anyone -- homosexuals, heterosexuals, men, women and children.

Going out and telling people about his experience is a dream-come-true for Moses who has always wanted to become a teacher.

"I am ready to die now. With my new role, I am doing what I have always dreamed of -- help the community that took care of me. I know now that there must be reason why this has happened. I've loved, I've lived and learned," he said.

Moses, as no other man, woman or child on this island has done this year, has understood what life is all about -- that it is always a constant struggle to stay alive and to make a difference while here on earth.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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