For many of the people I met in Zambia, HIV had led them to death’s doorstep; their families and communities abandoned them. But when I boarded the plane to come home, I felt hope – not despair. As an ambassador for PSI’s HIV programs, I traveled to Zambia to learn how PSI’s “combination prevention” approach to HIV is providing hope for millions by fighting the disease from every angle. It’s a common-sense approach – use multiple interventions that prevent HIV in tandem and the likelihood of HIV transmission is greatly reduced. On the first day of my trip, I met with a support group for people newly diagnosed with HIV. It was the fourth of five meetings meant to give them the tools they need to manage their disease.
I walked into a bright, one-room structure that sits behind a Catholic church at the end of a long dirt road. There were about 25 people in all – men, women, some young, some old, some with children. To break the ice, I shared why I got involved as an HIV activist. I lost a very dear friend many years ago. After I spoke, Irene stood up to share her story. She had a strong face, but underneath I could tell there was a story of hardship and struggle. She had a baby on her back and another at her feet.
The path that led her here had not been easy. Some time ago she started to develop painful sores on her hands and all over her body, and didn’t understand why. She could barely lift herself out of bed. But the physical pain wasn’t the worst part. Irene was a greeter at her church – something she loved to do. When she started getting visibly sick, people wouldn’t go near her. The pastor told her she had AIDS and that she was going to die, and asked her to leave the church.
It wasn’t until a friend insisted that Irene get tested for HIV that she learned of her status and started treatment. When she told her son, instead of offering support, he spat on her and told her she was as good as dead. He tossed money at her and told her to go to another village to die. She refused to leave. She had no other family. Her husband passed away years ago, and everyone she cared about was abandoning her. As she spoke, I was surprised to see relief come across her face. The fact that she was able to share her story and that people in the group were listening and relating to her somehow lessened her pain. Clearly she needed to be heard, and like all of us, she just needed some compassion. At the end of the meeting, I walked over and hugged her. We held each other for quite some time. I looked at her and she was smiling – she proudly introduced me to her two beautiful children. We played and laughed together. It started a chain reaction of hugs that turned into the most beautiful singing that then turned into dancing.
I left the support group full of emotion and with a greater appreciation for the impact these programs have for people like Irene. Irene came to the group to learn how to live with HIV – instead, she’s learning to thrive.
By PSI Ambassador Debra Messing