This day, for the past 24 years, has been about raising awareness around HIV and AIDS. For many of us, especially here in South Africa, this one disease has become central to our lives. This is true for many of those we care for and have cared about over the years. First identified in the early eighties, I still remember the early confused, almost hushed, discussions around this disease while at medical school, and how it slowly crept its way onto the agenda and how then the floodgates opened, causing so much destruction along the way.
Over the years I have been involved with many affected by AIDS and infected with HIV. Some experiences don’t fade. The first time I remember consciously choosing to attend differently to someone with AIDS was in the very early 90s as a young doctor in Sydney. I was doing a two-week locum rotation through the infectious diseases ward. During these early years of HIV/ AIDS decimating the gay community in Australia, there was still much fear and stigma around this new disease. One of the AIDS patients on the ward was terminally ill. This still being in an era before any effective treatment was identified. The instructions to all of us were to wear gloves whenever we took bloods or examined him. Finding these demeaning and more isolating of this man who had already been abandoned by his family, had lost his life partner to AIDS, and whose children were actively being kept away from him, I chose to take blood and examine him without gloves and took to sitting with him, hearing about his family, his loves, his dreams, his losses, and his fears. A simple act of compassion and touch that was a catalyst for many things to fall into place, including the courage to insist on seeing his children, to talk openly with his family about his illness, and to accept less a position of isolation.
My own children have had three carers over the years who helped me raise them during their early childhoods, enabled me to work part-time, and fulfilled a role of mothering to them that was loving, patient, and unconditionally accepting, at a time when I was struggling with the role of motherhood. All of these women have themselves succumbed to this disease, a loss that is still felt acutely. As a way of honoring them today, I leave the last word to my son, at boarding school far away from home, who posted this on his facebook page. A young man also affected by this disease that has caused so much loss for many of us and still challenges us every day.
“As we watched the movie “Philadelphia” today, discussed the HIV/AIDS issue and stood in the shape of the AIDS ribbon holding candles, I thought of home and of all the people there affected by this disease. But also, I thought of Mariette, a woman who played a large part in my early life and gave me my middle name “Bongani”, which means, “to be thankful.” I am thankful for having known Mariette and her daughter, and though Mariette may be gone, her love and grace lives on in her daughter and the happiness she gave me in my early days. AIDS is a difficult topic, but it is also a human topic, affecting people who we love and care for and who form part of our lives. The best thing we can do is show love no matter what; if one thing defeats AIDS, it should be love. “