Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Life here is very, very hard..."

Well, surely I've heard the term "baptism by fire" before, however, today I LIVED IT. Wednesday was my first day as an Augustinian Volunteer at the Hillcrest AIDS Center. I walked in to the respite unit and felt the butterflies going in my stomach. I've read a lot about AIDS in Africa. I've watched movie and documentaries about AIDS in Africa. It's a whole new ballgame when AIDS in Africa has a face, a family, a smile...

I immediately was greeted by Maryann who runs the center. I'm not quite sure how this woman does what she does everyday in the face of such adversity. She was trying to sort out some emergency matters, so she passed me off to Hannica (pronounced like the Jewish Holiday), a Dutch nursing student, who is completing an internship at Hillcrest. Thank God for Hannica! She took me under her wing and could sense how very nervous I was about this new endeavor. She gave me an in depth tour and background of the organization, then handed me a manual to look over. I sat and read the care-workers manual for a while, then she told me it was time to go! Go where you ask...on my first home visit into the valley! YIKES!!!!!

Hannica, Sphe (head care-worker), and I hopped into a little white car and took off. We travelled into Embo (mentioned in earlier posts) and barely fit through narrow dirt roads. Hannica parked at the top of a hill because she said the car simply could not make it down as the road was torn up and muddy. Equipped with their medical kit and a scared American lady (ME) these two pros seemed at ease with this assignment. We manuevered down this embankment and came to a small property which housed a small trailor and a shack with a tin roof. As we approached the shack, two babies (1-1.5 years) can running to see who we were...they had only t-shirts on and looked very frightened. They ran away bare bottoms and all screaming and crying after seeing "strangers." They finally calmed down a while later and gnawed on corn cobs the entire time. They were orphaned by AIDS and this family has taken them in.

We were met by an older man who showed us to the patient. She was laying on a mattress inside the shack. She looked like she was at least 70 but I later found out she was 50. She was referred to the Center by someone in the community who feared she was getting sicker each day (she was already on treatment for Tuberculosis). She had been tested in the past for HIV, however, she never returned to find the results. Hannica and Sphe (along with a Zulu care-worker) had to, as Hannica stated, "play God," and deciede if this woman was sick enough to be taken away for care. This may sound like an unbelievable statement, but in South Africa, with staggering infection rates, extreme poverty, limited resources and education, and not enough medical advances this is how it has to be done.

After a long time spent with the patient, they decieded she should go to the Don Mackenzie Hospital which serves many patients with TB and HIV/AIDS. Remember the hill we had to walk down to fetch the woman? Well, she hadn't been out of bed in weeks and she now had to climb this hill as well. Two of the women held her up as she tried to inch her way up the hill. I stood behind the whole group just watching in awe. We then piled back into the tiny car and drove her to hopefully get the care she needs. A young Zulu man came with us in the car. Once we arrived at the hospital, I was standing next to him and asked him what their relationship was. It was his Mother he told me and he was 25. His English was pretty good and we began talking. He never finished school and he only works when he can find a job (5-6 days/month). Tears came to his eyes and he told me "Life here is very, very hard. I thought my Mom would die today. Thank you for helping us. No one would help us." I told him he was welcome and that things would get a little better once she gets the care she needs. Then, we left them there and went on to the next task. All I can do now, is pray for their family and others like them.

Next we went to visit a GoGo (Grandma in Zulu) who I had heard a lot about during my short time here. She, apparently, was a very well-educated woman who lives in a home by herself in a valley. A while back, she was bitten by a poisonous snake down in the grass near her house. After some failed attempts at skin grafts, she now lives daily with open wounds from below the knee to her ankle on both legs. Hannica and I again climbed our way down a very muddy incline to find her, in her usual spot, sitting on the couch. Each week someone from the AIDS center goes to change her dressings and bring her new medicine refills. I was nervous at first to view the wounds, because I was told they were very severe (which they were!!) but once you meet this sweet, OUTSPOKEN GoGo you can't help but be put at ease. We spoke for a while and during that time she advised me about basically all aspects of life. It was obvious that she is quite lonely and she requested that we come back again very soon to chat!

On our way back from GoGo's home, Hannica dropped me at home. I came home and had to sit and think about what I had just seen, heard, and felt. In fact, I think that I'll be trying to sort things I experience out for this whole year...maybe even beyond this year. It's not an easy placement and my first day was definitly daunting. The people I have met so far have already impacted me in ways I can barely comprehend.

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