Every day, patients gather outside Alive Medical Services’ counselling rooms. They filter in and out of the offices in a seemingly endless procession, waiting for their turn to catch up with our counsellors. One of those counsellors is named Julian, but everyone knows her as Mummy J.
Her nickname came about not only because of her palpable kindness, but also because of her strength – and her ability to support people in the darkest of situations.
“I’ve carried that name everywhere I go,” Julian said. “When I was a child, I took care of the other children. When I was in school, I was the mother of the class. And as a counsellor, I look after my clients. Being mummy was always part of me.”
Julian has been nurturing those around her for as long as she can remember. She lost her parents to AIDS-related illnesses at ages 11 and 13, tragedies that forced Julian to grow up quickly. Though still young herself, she became a leader in a rapidly growing family of HIV-affected orphans; Julian’s aunt, who she had been sent to live with, took in Julian and 20 other children who had nowhere else to turn.
“It was like a big orphanage, or a refugee camp,” Julian said. “In those days, HIV touched everyone. Death was an everyday occurrence, and my aunt – though strict – was the hope of our family.”
Julian lived with her aunt in Wakiso until she got married at age 18. Throughout that time, she cooked, cleaned, and took care of the younger children, constantly putting their needs before her own. It was only until after she was married that Julian revisited her childhood dream of becoming a nurse – but even then, school fees made such an occupation impossible.
In the first years of her marriage, Julian and her husband struggled. They were living in chronic poverty, and because her husband’s job in construction was not enough to support their family, she picked up a job as a domestic servant. The job was a starting point, an entryway to higher education, but Julian gave it everything she had.
Little by little, Julian saved up enough money to begin attending classes again – but this time, it wasn’t a nursing career she was after. Instead, she decided to go down a different path: counselling.
“I performed well in school because I realized I was doing exactly what I was supposed to do,” Julian said. “And exactly what I had been doing for years. I know that sometimes, people just need someone to listen. I’ve been there, and I know the power of love.”
Soft-spoken and warm, Julian’s essence makes people feel valued, listened to, and supported. She had always connected easily with people, and those strengths reaffirmed her decision to become a counsellor in a medical setting, as she knew the toll HIV could take on a person’s life.
After completing her studies, Julian began working at AMS in 2010. Since then, she’s seen countless clients, helping people recover and rebuild through the strength of her words. Barbara, a counsellor in Julian’s department, said she has a way of understanding the clients.
“She’s good at listening, and she always goes the extra mile for the patients,” Barbara said.
Still, it’s not just the patients Julian touches at AMS – she has had an impact on each member of the AMS staff. Nearly every morning, she leads the team in song and dance, bringing light to a day that is often filled, by nature of an HIV-clinic, with difficult, trying experiences. Jenifer, a monitoring and evaluation officer, described Julian as a giver, something that goes hand-in-hand with kindness.
“I do what I can to help people smile,” Julian said. “It’s all about building hope in a hopeless situation.”
Taking care of a child – any child – is never easy. But when Irene found out her adopted daughter, Gift, was HIV-positive, she was at a loss for what to do. Gift’s diagnosis came during a difficult time, as Irene brought the baby to Alive Medical Services (AMS) when she was near death. After the doctors and nurses treated Gift, she was started on antiretroviral medication at the age of 2.
“I had never taken care of an HIV-positive person before,” Irene said. “AMS did so many tests and figured out what was happening to my child.”
After Gift’s condition stabilized, Irene continued visiting AMS to seek out advice and retrieve Gift’s medication. The counsellors helped Irene understand the importance of proper disclosure, and taught her methods of discussing HIV in ways that wouldn’t scare or stigmatize her daughter. For years, Irene and Gift took medication together, turning it into a morning routine where Irene would swallow her vitamin supplements, while Gift would take her antiretroviral treatment.
When Irene felt Gift was old enough to know the truth, Irene was honest with her. After discussing her status just the two of them, Irene took Gift to visit the AMS counsellors. Though she was only 8 years old at the time, Gift immediately started tracking her medications with a watch, taking full control over her treatment and her health.
“She really was amazing, and I’m so proud of her,” Irene said. “But she also got the right information from the right people at the right time.”
Gift is now 9 years old, and Irene reports that she feels free about her diagnosis. Her health is stable, and she has disclosed her status to the older members of her family.
“I used to think: how am I going to do this?” Irene said. “I used to be scared. But I thank God for Alive. Now I know exactly how to care for my child.”