Johannesburg, South Africa
Tracey Neale, Founder
It hit me then, as it would you today. The kind of smell you can almost taste. It was an odd antiseptic mix of cleaning solution and soiled diapers.
We were entering Enhembane, an orphanage in South Africa, where a quarter of the population was HIV positive and dying rapidly from a vicious version of the virus, called sub-type C.
My assignment? Cover the orphan crisis in Africa, then return to the Washington, DC where a documentary would air and I would get back to anchoring the nightly news. But, as fate would have it, my life was about to be profoundly disrupted.
Gingerly, I peeked into the first room, expecting to make eye contact with a weary adult caretaker. Instead I found chestnut colored children crawling across a cold tiled floor.
Barely sliding my backpack off my shoulder, I felt a tug at my skirt. A downward glance caught the fluffy edge of a blue and white polka dot dress. But, it's what I heard that stole my heart.
The sweetest little giggle and the words, "Mama, Mama!" As I went to pick up this little giggling girl, a wonderfully round nurse with a thick Zulu accent walked in behind us and said, that's Veronica. The one and a half year old smiled shyly, and showed me her dress. Then, she climbed up in my lap, and made it quite clear that she had no intention of leaving.
Veronica appeared to be healthy with bright, engaging eyes. It only took a few beautiful moments to know that I had just met my daughter. But, my moment of bliss sank into agony, as the nurse sat down, crossed her arms and told me that Veronica was actually one of the AIDS orphans I came here to profile. Just another innocent victim of this opportunistic infection.
In fact, just about all of the children at the orphanage were HIV positive. Some had been raped, some literally thrown away, and others were failed abortions. All were left to face a lonely and painful future, with no anti retro-viral drugs, and - as I was about to discover - no future.
I left behind photos and colorful drawings, before heading back to the United States, believing that I had a tough choice to make. I proceeded with the paperwork thinking that I could, if nothing else, prolong Veronica's life by providing her with my love, and the best nutrition and medicine available in the western world.
But, when I told the orphanage of my intentions, they quickly informed me that I was misguided. You see, Veronica and all of the other children weren't at the orphanage waiting to be adopted, they were waiting to die!
The orphanage and government leaders had officially deemed the children un-adoptable.
HIV-AIDS had not only caused Veronica's blood to betray her, but now lawmakers were too.
The virus was insisting that this little girl never know love, never be taken home, never be bathed by the same set of hands and never be made to feel safe.
I was stunned and heartbroken.
Upon my final return, Veronica had already become a different child. I likened her and some of the other children to the living dead, both physically and psychologically.
The giggly girl, who once oozed smiles, now had sores that oozed puss and blood. Those eyes once so bright and full of life, now hardly focused. I called her name, but she didn't respond. I'm sure she could still speak, but her will was gone.
Gone too was that blue polka dot dress she was so darn proud of, replaced by a soiled one - torn and a bit too small.
Again, I inquired about any potential for adoption and there was no change. What was changing was Veronica's health. It was deteriorating fast. Having held enough dying children, I knew the haunting look of death. I continued to leave behind photos and drawing so that she would know someone out there cared. Previously, I taped them around her sleeping area. But this time they were placed right above her pillow, knowing she wouldn't be getting up much longer.
I drew out I ((heart)) YOU! I wanted her to be able to open her eyes and see it. Maybe it would help block out the fear a child must feel lying there - dying alone. Sometimes following my newscasts, I'd call South Africa to check up on Veronica, but the news was increasingly grave and I was growing increasingly sad and angry.
Finally, on one unremarkable Tuesday night I had heard enough. I hung up the phone, threw my glass of juice across the kitchen floor, wept, and never called about her again.
Out of that loss, Veronica's Story was born.
Veronica in her sweet blue and white dress
Veronica swings joyously
Video: Veronica During Better Times