Occasionally at my health center, I work in the VCT department. This acronym stands for Voluntary Counseling and Testing and deals exclusively with people who want to be tested for HIV/AIDS.
Normally there are a few people who come in, some with stories, most silently, and almost all testing negative. However, occasionally you get someone who really makes a huge impact on your life; Emmaculee was that person for me.
I was running late so I slipped into the consultation room, ready to help the first patient (normally we have individuals come alone). I immediately stopped in my tracks when an unusual sight met my eyes. A woman sat in the room, surrounded by her four young children, one a young baby only a few months old. My curiosity was soon quenched as she started to pour out her life story to me and the nurse (who was kind enough to translate for me).
Emmaculee and her husband are both HIV positive but because of the stigma attached to it, he refuses to take his ARV treatment and has also forbidden his wife from the life-sustaining drugs. Recently, he has become paralyzed on one side of his body, a result of neglecting his disease, and can no longer work or support his family. Desperate, Emmaculee took a completely taboo route that is almost unheard of in this male-dominated and traditional society. She left her husband.
To clarify how difficult this decision was and continues to be: now Emmaculee and her four small children are living with a man who has been generous enough to take them in. Emmaculee farms for him five days a week to pay the rent. On the weekends, she farms in an attempt to sustain herself and her children. It’s clearly not enough. The whole family was obviously not well fed, and she pointedly avoided our questions about the children being in school (I highly doubt they were). Women who leave their husbands in this society are often rejected and lose the necessary support that is essential to sustaining life. Even with a family intact, people in this community are barely eking out a living. Malnutrition is rampant, and many children are out of school, even in families with two parents. When Emmaculee recently approached her estranged husband to ask for food for the children, he ordered their eldest son to attack her. Her head was still bandaged from the wound where he hit her with a rock. There was no police investigation, and even if there had been, the husband probably would not have been punished.
Despite the hardships, Emmaculee continues to be strong. She is taking her ARVs faithfully and brought her children in that day to be tested. She found out that she was HIV positive during her last pregnancy, and her husband (who most likely infected her in the first place) filled her head with fear and lies that now all the children would have HIV and that he was deliberately going to give it to them (myths about how HIV is transmitted are very prevalent). Luckily, the children are all HIV/AIDS negative.
As we wrapped up our discussion with this remarkable woman, we asked her where she lived. She and others in her distant community, have to walk 2.5 to 3 hours to reach medical help. There are no closer health posts or clinics. I can’t imagine the desperation that must come from having a loved one who is seriously ill or injured and knowing that help is hours away and often too expensive to afford even if you arrive at a medical facility. This distance is impossible for many people and makes village outreach programs absolutely essential. No one should have to suffer or even die from a completely curable disease like malaria. Those infected with HIV/AIDS should have access to the life-saving treatments they so need. Health is a basic human right that is denied to millions around the world.
Village outreach, like what is done by Mercy Hospital, saves many lives and significantly improves health standards in isolated communities.