Today, Alive Medical Services said goodbye to two important members of our team: Isabel Bedford and Ella Polczyk-Przybyla, music therapy trainees from the University of the West of England (UWE). During their three months at AMS, Isabel and Ella engaged 711 individuals in music therapy activities by holding targeted sessions five days a week.
“People really responded to the program, and to an opportunity to be part of something that is creative,” Isabel said. “It’s another facet of AMS’ holistic care, because clients can engage in musical activities while receiving their medication.”
Though AMS and Musicians Without Borders engaged 30 youth in a community music project last year, AMS did not have a daily music therapy program prior to Isabel and Ella’s arrival.
The trainees provided multiple music therapy groups for clients, including open adult groups, mother-and-baby groups, open community groups, open children/youth groups, closed adult groups, and individual sessions.
“When you come to the doctor, you’re told what to do,” Ella said. “That’s important. But when clients come to a music session, they get their agency back. They have the opportunity to play, sing, and dance, and whatever they do, it will be exactly right.”
Adult open sessions aimed to promote group bonding and social cohesion, provide an opportunity for emotional release, and enable self-expression. Similar goals were set for the open community groups and children/youth groups, while also alleviating boredom, encouraging playtime, and counteracting the medical environment of the clinic.
The mother-and-baby groups provided an opportunity for mothers and babies to spend time together, and encouraged bonding, interaction, sensory stimulation for babies, and stress reduction, among other objectives. The closed groups offered opportunities for regular music-making, song creation, and bonding among a group of consistent participants.
“I’m feeling very happy, and hoping at least now, I can feel the world,” one client said after participating in a music therapy session.
The impact of music therapy has been well-documented. Many studies have shown music therapy can be a therapeutic tool for vulnerable populations, and Isabel and Ella’s work illustrated similar findings. Through quantitative feedback surveys, the trainees found elevated levels of relaxation, confidence, and optimism after participants engaged in music sessions. They also found improved perceptions of connection to others and respect from their peers.
Isabel and Ella also held weekly sessions for staff to increase bonds and collaboration between staff, promote relaxation, and encourage self-expression and creativity. In addition, they trained staff members and select youth to use music for communicating and building relationships with clients. These trainings facilitate the program’s sustainability at AMS.
Today, the trainees return to the United Kingdom to finish their degrees in music therapy. Because of the program’s success, AMS will remain a music therapy placement site for the University of the West of England. We hope to take on new trainees later this year.
“This session made my week begin with peace,” one staff member said after participating in the staff group. “I feel like it will stay with me forever.”
Leading up to the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11), Alive Medical Services is recognizing one of our own: Saudah Asiimwe Kiganda, head of the laboratory. Saudah has been at Alive since 2008, joining the team at the clinic’s beginnings. Today, she manages nine other laboratory professionals and oversees over 5,100 laboratory tests every month.
“In the lab, we uncover the root causes of why someone is sick, and give doctors the information they need to help the clients get better,” Saudah said.
Around the world, women are highly underrepresented in the field of science. The probability of female students graduating with a master’s degree in a science-related field is just 8% – compared to the probability of male students, which is more than double the female ratio.
“If women are given a chance, they can achieve scientific breakthroughs,” Saudah said. “When a woman puts effort into something, she goes all the way.”
When Saudah was just 17, she was recognized as the best in biology throughout the entire region of Western Uganda. Though Saudah was first interested in marine biology, she gradually became more interested in working with people – and investigating the reasons behind illness in evidence-based ways.
She left her hometown of Kabale to start her diploma in biological sciences after finishing secondary school. Soon after, she began her degree in medical laboratory science at Makerere University, and gained laboratory experience working at three clinics in Kampala.
In 2008, Saudah joined Alive’s three-person laboratory team. Since then, she’s watched the team triple in size as the clinic’s client-base has expanded: in 11 years, AMS has gone from having six clients to over 13,500. Since joining the laboratory, Saudah has spearheaded a number of improvements throughout the years, including but not limited to contributing to increasing the variety of tests provided, improving laboratory safety, and increasing the number of certificates the team has received.
“Seeing the progress our team has made pushes me to achieve more,” Saudah said. “It’s exciting to keep improving.”
Happy International Day of Women and Girls in Science to all our female colleagues, friends, family, and supporters!
Growing up, George knew he wanted to be a doctor. He was good at math and biology, and he idolized his uncle, a well-known doctor in his Lira community.
“My uncle had a passion for his patients, and I respected that,” George said. “I wanted to learn to do what he did – so I studied clinical medicine, community health and public health.”
After finishing his studies, George got a job with Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) in Northern Uganda. He was stationed in Lira and Kitgum, where he worked with children in two therapeutic feeding centres that served as referral points for health facilities throughout the region. He had studied malnutrition and its effects at university, but seeing such issues in person changed the course of George’s life.
After two years with MSF, George moved to Kampala to continue his studies at the International Health Sciences University. Right down the road, Alive Medical Services (AMS) was growing at a rapid pace. Though only in existence for three years, word about the small clinic was spreading.
“One thing I noticed immediately was the teamwork,” said George, speaking of his impressions after first visiting AMS. “Seven years later, that teamwork is one of the major reasons I continue to work hard today.”
Eventually, a spot opened up at AMS. George took it, and immediately, he began noticing an all-too-common trend, something he had seen regularly in the refugee camps in the north. Many of his HIV positive clients were malnourished, running the risk of never getting better due to lack of food.
“Good nutrition and antiretroviral treatment reinforce each other,” George said. “When a client is taking ARVs but not eating well, they’ll never get better.”
George took it upon himself to expand AMS’ nutrition programming. Every quarter, AMS now screens more than 5,000 clients for malnutrition. Twice a month, we provide packages of rice, beans, sugar and vegetables to thousands of families in food crisis.
In 2014, George took over AMS’ budding gardening program, which trains HIV positive clients to grow healthy food in their own neighbourhoods. George began training multiple groups of clients from across Central Uganda, including patients in Kampala, Mukono, Kapeeka and beyond. Today, there are 18 established gardening groups of AMS clients, all of whom cultivate produce for subsistence and sale.
To strengthen his knowledge of nutrition even further, recently, George went back to school to receive a master’s degree in human nutrition. He has continued to work full-time at AMS, helping clients better understand the value of nutrition through counselling, nutrition check-ups, and health talks.
“Nutrition is critical for people managing HIV,” George said. “We can’t leave it behind.”
Hassan found out he was HIV positive in 2010. He and his wife had long split up – but when he found out she had passed away, Hassan had a feeling he knew why.
“My brother is a doctor in California,” Hassan said. “He tested me for HIV years before, but didn’t tell me the truth because he was scared of my reaction. Deep down, I knew what he couldn’t tell me.”
Eventually, Hassan visited Alive Medical Services to be tested and treated for HIV. At first, the medication made him dizzy, weak, and drowsy – but after speaking with the doctors, he was switched to the same antiretrovirals he has been on ever since.
“When I first found out I had HIV, I was heartbroken,” Hassan said. “I was in denial until I went through intensive counselling at AMS. They helped me work through what I was feeling.”
Because he hadn’t felt symptoms until a few months before his diagnosis, Hassan had no idea the virus had also touched his daughter. She was just 12 years old at the time she was tested, and at such a young age, Hassan was unsure how to tell her the truth.
The two developed an unspoken routine: Hassan and his daughter would take their medication together in the morning. It wasn’t until Hassan’s daughter saw another student at school taking the same medication that she started asking questions.
Understanding the value of proper disclosure, Hassan sought support from the AMS counseling department. He sat his daughter down to tell her the truth, finally revealing the secret he’d been keeping for two years.
“Will we die?” Hassan’s daughter asked.
“No,” Hassan answered. “If we keep taking our medication, we will live long, healthy lives.”
Today, Hassan’s daughter is an activist in her community. She takes after her father, who is outspoken about HIV, stigma, and the availability of free HIV resources both in person and online. By speaking out about HIV at school, Hassan’s daughter has mentored a number of HIV-positive children, helping them adhere to their medication and stay optimistic about their futures.
“She’s strong and vigilant,” Hassan said. “I couldn’t be prouder of who she has become.”
When Nadia was 10 years old, she was hospitalized for an entire month. She had no idea she was HIV positive until months later – and she didn’t realize the weight HIV carried until she returned to primary school.
“My teachers would always say you can’t do this, you can’t do that,” Nadia said. “They acted like I was so fragile. Like I could faint at any moment.”
For months, Nadia felt isolated. The kids at school didn’t understand why the teachers treated her the way that they did, and Nadia couldn’t understand it either. When she took her medication, she felt fine – but for some reason, her teachers thought she was anything but.
Tired of all the special treatment, Nadia stopped taking her medication, hoping that everyone would treat her like a normal person again.
Once Nadia’s mother realized what her daughter was doing, she brought Nadia to Alive Medical Services (AMS) for counselling. Day after day, Nadia sat with the counsellors, and they spoke to her about good adherence and living positively. Soon after, Nadia began engaging with the Victor’s Club, AMS’ youth program for adolescents living with HIV.
“When I got to secondary level, I started to let it go,” Nadia said. “I thought to myself: I have HIV. That can’t be changed. And I can live with that.”
In time, Nadia began singing, dancing, and making friends at Victor’s Club. This past summer, AMS staff trained Nadia to become a youth peer educator, giving her the skills to counsel other youth living with HIV, and refer them to the clinic for treatment.
Now 18, Nadia hopes to attend university next year. Eventually, she hopes to become a counsellor for HIV-positive children herself.
“I want HIV-positive children to know that living a positive life is not that hard,” Nadia said. “You can live beyond other people’s expectations. You can achieve what others can achieve, and more. It’s important not to be afraid.”
Ever since school let out, Nadia has spent her days volunteering at AMS. She helps measure the weight, height, and health status of children at triage, working alongside the nurses and helping whenever she can.
“I want to work with children because they are the future of tomorrow,” Nadia said. “They should know that HIV can’t stop them.”
On Saturday, December 16, over 160 adolescents gathered at Alive Medical Services for the last Youth Day of 2017. Led almost entirely by AMS’ youth peer educators, Youth Day consisted of games, performances, singing, and dancing.
AMS staff also led educational sessions on the new differentiated service delivery model being rolled out at the clinic, which is working to decrease wait time for clients and increase efficiency for doctors.
The MCs of the event – three young people AMS trained as peer educators this past quarter – encouraged youth of all ages to show off what they do best. Performances included singing, dancing, miming, and even eating, the latter of which was showcased through an eating competition among six youth.
Later into the day, everyone participated in an activity led by AMS’ two music therapists. The music therapists introduced the group to samba, a Brazilian genre of music that relies on syncopated rhythms and heavy percussion.
Over 100 people beat drums, shook maracas, and played other musical instruments, coming together to create music from the other side of the Atlantic.
Youth were also given a chance to sign up for two new initiatives that will be launched at AMS next year: Positive. Powerful. Alive., a participatory storytelling project aimed to decrease stigma and open up conversation around HIV; and Peer Network Group, a platform for HIV positive clients to engage and interact with one another through synchronized appointments and activities.
“It was a day of reuniting, rejuvenation, and entertainment,” one youth said. “And of course, for making friends.”