The moments that have surprised me the most have been some of the hardest to explain and reflect upon. These interactions seem so simple and ordinary when you skim the surface, but if you just stop for the slightest of a second to think beyond the task at hand, pause to peer into the life of the individual before you, your world as you know it screeches to an alarming halt. In these moments my life seems so trivial and undeniably selfish. A pang of guilt creeps in and my heart screams in question, “WHY, WHY, WHY”!? Why have I been so lucky? Does every individual not deserve the reassurance that they will have food on the table for their family each day, that the drinking water will not make them devastatingly ill, or that they will live long enough to celebrate their 13th birthday.
During our last week at Lewanika General Hospital I was fortunate enough to spend time in the ART (Anti-Retroviral Therapy) clinic. The ART clinic is where individuals from Mongu and the surrounding communities come for HIV counseling, routine check-ups, CD4 counts, and medication alterations etc. The clinic is open Monday through Friday and each day at precisely 8:00 a.m. the crowd of approximately 250 rush in, each person scrambling to be first in line.
It is difficult to come face to face with so many people affected by HIV/AIDS at one time. To avoid the impact that HIV has on this world, more specifically southern sub-Sahara Africa, is beyond impossible. Looking into a child’s eyes and knowing whole-heartedly that they will not live long enough to see adulthood is one of the most helpless feelings I’ve ever experienced.
A moment that took me by surprise and literally knocked the wind right out of me happened while I was weighing a middle-aged man that had already been diagnosed with HIV for a few years now. He came in for a routine check-up and I was taking his vital signs before his assessment with the Clinical Officers. He wore an orange collared shirt, which was smudged with dirt, and a pair of dark dress pants, fraying around the ankles. His black dress shoes were unpolished and looked as though they had been to the top of Mount Everest and back. His face looked sunken and tired and he carried a slender tattered leather brief case, which held only his hospital patient record. The man removed his shoes to mount the scale; his body shook as he stood there and as I looked down at his feet I couldn’t help but notice the large holes in both his socks, exposing both his big toes and three others on each foot. I could tell that this man had dressed in his best to come to the hospital that day, my heart began to wrench and my eyes welled up with tears. I put my head down to catch my breath.
I will never be able to fully understand the reality of the situation here in Mongu or else where in this world for that matter because I am not personally living with the disease. Just to bear a glimpse of someone’s life who is living here with HIV was enough to leave me speechless. The complexity and severity of HIV as well as the multiple co-morbidities and poverty that plague Africa make living with HIV/AIDS incredibly difficult and at times impossible. HIV has left thousands upon thousands of children without families, grandparents are looking after grandchildren and siblings are looking after younger brothers and sisters, those of whom are also fighting to take care of themselves.
This experience has opened my eyes to pain and suffering well beyond my comprehension. The interest I hold in the fight against HIV has been officially sparked; I hope to be a positive agent in the care and reduction of stigma for individuals living with HIV/AIDS for as long as this disease is taking the lives of people on this earth.