Proud, Pretty and HIV-Positive
February 18, 2008, —By Lane Hartill
Two years ago, HIV was running roughshod over Lydia*. She didn't think she had much of a chance. She was concerned when she lost so much weight people didn't recognize her. She was terrified when, for one two-week stretch, she lost her voice. She says she had a CD4 count of 1 (CD4 count is the measure of how strong a person's immune system is). A healthy person's count is around 1,000. Lydia, it's safe to say, was close to death.
But during this time, she never told her daughter — who she had when she was 16 — that she was positive. The stigma of HIV is so high in Ghana that husbands don't tell wives, and moms, like Lydia, don't tell daughters. She still hasn't told her. She doesn't know how she will react. But Lydia's brothers knew and never abandoned her. They still send money, her only source of income.
She bounced back, thanks to medication. Now, she's a vision. Her eyes are elegantly dusted with purple eye shadow and today she chose lipstick the color of sangría. With hoop earrings and a plunging neckline, she looks ready for a Bruce Springsteen concert, not a day with her two HIV-positive "sisters."
Lydia is one of 22 home-based care volunteers based in Obuasi, Ghana. She lends her time to the Community Collaborative Care and Support Project, an organization supported by Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Church.
She says she volunteers because someone helped her when she was sick. They changed her clothes when she couldn't make it to the bathroom. Now she will do that for others. She doesn't mind, she says. She remembers what it felt like to be cared for, how much she appreciated it.
A Little Help From My Friends
One of her "sisters" (not a family member, but a fellow Ghanaian) is Adjua. She used to sell oranges in the market but now passes her day in the heat of a dank concrete room. Lasers of light drill into the room from pinholes in the zinc roof. It's a depressing sight. But Lydia's arrival changes the mood.
Lydia sits on the edge of Adjua's four-poster bed, helps her sit up, then combs the tangles out of her hair. She has kindness to burn, and Adjua soaks it up like the sun.
Lydia's approach makes her a natural caregiver. She drapes her arm around Adjua's shoulders and talks to her about caring for herself. The spiel isn't clinical or stiff with formality. Her tone is never patronizing; it's never a lecture or a reprimand. It is quiet and serene, like a mother talking to her daughter before bed.
Those days are gone for Adjua. Her mom died. So did her son's father. She sees her 7-year-old occasionally. He hasn't been tested yet.
The one constant in her life: Lydia.
Adjua has only been on antiretroviral therapy one month. "If you take [your medication] regularly, the drug will work well," Lydia tells her. "Then you will look like me."
Lydia asks her how she can help. Adjua timidly says the floor needs cleaning. Lydia kicks off her black flats — whose backs are crushed down so she can slide into them — and gets right to work mopping the concrete floor, disinfecting, tidying up.
She finds an old razor blade under a table. It's a teachable moment: "You need to dispose of it properly," Lydia says. The underwear hanging above the bed is another potential lesson.
"When you wash your panties and towels, you need to hang them outside to dry in the sun," Lydia says. "It will kill the bacteria." They talk about how HIV is spread, and why sharing a toothbrush isn't a good idea.
Lydia's not a doctor. In fact, she dropped out of school around age 16. Her grace and compassion trump her lack of medical knowledge. And besides, Adjua doesn't want someone droning on about HIV mutations. She wants a friend, someone she can feel close to. And trust.
Lydia doesn't see Adjua and the others as HIV patients. To her, they are sisters with a problem. That's all. HIV is not a death sentence. It's just a virus. They're going to get better. She did. They will too.
Until they do, she'll be on the edge of their bed, hugging them in the heat.
*All names have been changed.
Lane Hartill is the West Africa regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services. He has visited CRS programs in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Lane is based in Dakar, Senegal.