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Monthly Archives: February 2010

The immigration officer at the border didn’t expect Elias to live very long, so he wrote the word “forever” in his passport.  He and his brothers were returning to Malawi to get the medical attention he desperately needed.  What that officer had seen was a gravely ill man, weighing just over 100 pounds.  He was too weak to walk, talk or eat.  He remembers being placed in a wheelchair, his head propped up for him, his powerless legs lifted to put his feet on the footrests.

His brothers convinced Elias to get tested for HIV.  He remembers feeling afraid, but he was willing.  After learning that he tested positive, his sister encouraged him to get help at the Partners in Hope Medical Center (PIH).  He recalls the kindness and respect shown to him at his first appointment.  The nurses and doctors gave him food and his first dose of anti-retroviral medication (ARVs) for AIDS.  Most importantly to him at that point was the “light” given him…the hope that, with treatment, he could still have a future.

After an early battle with meningitis, he began to improve on ARVs.  He put back on some of the weight he’d lost, and he noticed that he felt much stronger. He attended the classes offered at PIH, which included information on nutrition, gardening and the importance of adhering to the medication regimen each day. 

Elias spoke of this time in his life being more than a physical recovery; it was also a spiritual one.  He remembers feeling guilty about a girl he may have passed HIV onto.  He imagined her parents taking him to court, ending up in prison.  Then, in his mind, he stood before a door.  He ‘heard’ a voice saying, “You have been forgiven.  With your HIV, kneel down and receive God as your Savior.”  He responded with a sincere and grateful heart that day.

With his renewed health, and gratitude for God’s forgiveness, he determined to tell his story to others.  He has met with several pastors and gotten invitations to speak in their church services.  He tells people, “With HIV, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of your life.  When you know your condition, it’s the start of your life.”  People find him afterward and thank him for his honesty.  He says, “There are even pastors who have become open about their own HIV status.  This makes their followers free to talk as well.”

Elias has lost many friends to AIDS.  “People are too shy about HIV, especially youth”, he says.  “They refuse the help they need.  They worry about what people will think of them.  They assume they’re dying.  If we don’t talk with them about HIV, we are just spoiling their futures.”

Today, Elias weighs 175 pounds and radiates health and enthusiasm.  He would say that he has a new lease on life, that he has “power to work” and earn a living.  He has a deep purpose, that of encouraging others to know their HIV status, get the help they need, and get on with life.  He said, “If I’m afraid to talk, I won’t help this world.”

Olive had lived through the pain and rejection of divorce, but even tougher times were ahead for this former member of Malawi’s Parliament. Two years later, a chronic cough led her to seek medical help from her brother, a clinician at Dowa Hospital. Observing how sick she was, he encouraged her to be tested for HIV. The news that she was indeed positive came as a huge blow to Olive. She told me, “I felt shattered, and I wept uncontrollably for nearly an hour.” The emotional wounds from the divorce were behind her, but she now had to face the reality that her husband had left her with this deadly virus.

There was much stigma around HIV then. She feared that her reputation would be ruined. She didn’t want people to be disturbed by her news. She didn’t want their pity. Soon she became too sick to work and had to quit her job. She could not have anticipated the response that her son would have after hearing the news of her illness. A 22-year-old husband and father of two young children, he took his own life. Olive felt that her life was falling apart. She remembered her brother who had died of AIDS three years earlier, before treatment was available in Malawi. She thought she too was dying, and even asked God to take her.

She became a patient at the Partners in Hope Medical Center (PIH), where the staff showed her much love and care. She told me, “One of the nurses, Anna, spreads hope to us. She welcomes us and treats us with warmth from her heart. She even dances and jokes with us.” The doctors treated Olive with ARVs (AIDS medications) for a year. However, her CD4 count (blood test indicator) was still very low and she was having side effects to the standard Malawi ARV regimen . At that time, this special regimen was not available at PIH, so she had to be transferred to the government program. She was very happy when PIH was later able to offer these medicines for free as well, and she returned there for her care.

It takes a big effort for Olive to get to PIH. In the rainy season, the dirt roads in her village turn to mud, so the buses cannot get close to her home. She walks about 12 kilometers to get to the main road! However, she feels it’s worth it, because she trusts PIH. She knows that her case is complicated, having changed her medication regimen several times already. She pays close attention to symptoms and side effects, coming to the medical center when problems arise.

As I listened to Olive share her story, I could see that she has joy in her heart. She is deeply grateful to the Lord and to PIH for saving her life. She says her faith has deepened because of her AIDS. Her real hope is in Jesus. I asked her if she has been able to forgive her husband (now deceased) for the trouble he caused her. She replied, “You know, he caused me to lose my health, my job and my son. There is still some resentment, but God is healing me.”

“I see a lot of hurting people, overwhelmed by HIV,” said Olive. “I try to encourage them, to give them hope. I tell them that HIV is like hair. Though you shave it, it will still come back. Instead, look after it. [You can] let it control you, or you can control it. Even with HIV, life can still be bright.” Olive talks with people wherever she goes, encouraging them about their HIV and telling them about the love of Jesus.

When I asked Olive to tell me one message she would want to give to others living with AIDS, she said, “Be holy and faithful. Pray without ceasing. Expect the Lord to do His part.” One of the Bible verses she clings to reads: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11). Olive tells people, “There is still life after HIV.”