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“I will not die before you do” Peace’s Story of Survival

Peace’s mother sold her and smiled.

“You don’t belong to anyone,” she said, looking down at the girl as she was forced to take off her clothes. Peace wrapped a red piece of cloth around her waist, not understanding where her mother was going, or why she had taken her here. Children peered out at her from behind the legs of adults, fear etched into every one of their faces.

“You’re going to die here,” her mother said.

Peace was just 7 years old. But in her head, she silently spoke her response.

Trust me, Mommy, she said. I will not die before you do. 

Childhood

This woman was not Peace’s mother. But when she first found Peace sleeping on the streets of Rakai, that’s exactly who she said she was. The woman cleaned Peace up, fed her dinner, and made her feel comfortable in her home, a large house far from the village 5-year-old Peace had initially fled.

“From this day forward, I am your mother,” the woman said. “You don’t have to worry anymore.”

Peace never knew her biological mother, but her last adopted family had forced her to sleep on the cold, hard ground outside their house. Peace’s new mother sent her to boarding school.

Though Peace was thrilled to go to school, she was anxious to see her mother again. She hadn’t been feeling well, and she was worried it was related to the fact that she wasn’t taking her medication anymore. Peace didn’t know what the medicine was for, but for as long as she could remember, the medicine had made her feel better. At her last home, Peace had been forced to clean the house, wash clothes, and scavenge for food — but she did swallow pills every day.

The holidays grew nearer, and returning home consumed the young girl’s thoughts.

“As time went on, I found out that my mother tried to pay the teachers to keep me at school,” Peace said. “But they kept telling her: you need to pick up your girl. Finally, she did.”

Back in Rakai, Peace’s reunion with her mother was short-lived. The woman left her with some food and water, and told Peace she’d be back in a week. When the woman’s husband found Peace at the house unaccompanied, he threw her out of the house, threatening to kill her when Peace tried to explain that the woman — his wife — was her mother.

Peace had no choice but to go back to the streets. For weeks, she shuffled from empty building to empty building to find somewhere to live, doing everything she could to get enough food to survive. Despite the last encounter she had with the woman’s husband, she felt like she had no choice. She went back to the large house  to ask for help.

Once she got there, Peace collapsed into the woman’s arms. Her husband wasn’t home, but he would be returning, she said. The woman dried Peace’s tears and held her close.

“Don’t cry,” the woman said. “I’m taking you to live with my sister.”

The woman brought Peace into a forest, claiming her sister had a large house of her own just a short distance away. The woman forced Peace to walk for hours, pressing her to continue until they finally reached a clearing in the woods.

The area was filled with dilapidated thatched huts. Peace had no idea where she was, or more alarming, why a wealthy woman’s sister would live in the depths of the forest. Her questions wouldn’t be answered until days later, when another young girl dressed in crimson explained where they were — and what they were doing there.

Before long, the woman was walking toward home with a money-filled envelope.

Peace was walking toward death in a child sacrifice camp.

Transitions

Today, Peace is 18 years old. Peace is a survivor — not only of poverty, violence, homelessness, and attempted murder, but also, of HIV.

After three months of trauma, Peace escaped the child sacrifice camp and boarded a taxi to Kampala. Weak and undernourished, she was soon back on the streets. She was rounded up with a group of other street children and sent to live in a police cell. When no one came to pick her up, Peace spent three years in a children’s prison.

Every day that passed, Peace’s health deteriorated more. Peace hadn’t committed a crime, but she also didn’t have a home. Without anyone to care for her, she remained in prison until she was adopted once more at the age of 11.

By that time, Peace had been without her medication (which, she later found out, was HIV treatment) for more than six years.

“The doctors thought I had brain damage because I was so sick,” Peace said. “I was finally adopted into a real, kind family, and my mother brought me to see Dr. Pasquine.”

AMS doctors tested Peace for HIV. When she tested positive, they started her on antiretroviral treatment. Thought her parents told Peace that the medicine would keep her healthy and strong, she didn’t realize she was HIV positive until her parents disclosed to her at the age of 13.

“I was terrified,” Peace said. “I had already gone through so many things. You wouldn’t even know I could speak because I was so quiet, I refused to talk.”

Peace became unconsolable. Unwilling to accept her diagnose, she stopped taking her medication. Peace’s parents brought her back to AMS for counseling, and while she was there, the staff introduced Peace to the Victor’s Club, AMS’ program and peer support group for youth living with HIV.

After interacting with doctors, counselors, and her HIV-positive peers, Peace realized her life was far from over. She kept returning to AMS for Victor’s Club meetings and treatment, and slowly, she began to open up. She started talking not only about her past memories, but her future fears.

Finally, Peace said, she had found a place where she could just be herself.

Today

“I never had friends before Victor’s Club,” Peace said. “Once I started coming, things really changed. Now, I’m so social — everyone here knows me.”

Today, Peace counsels younger children involved in Victor’s Club and organizes meetings for her peers. She feels stigma free, she said, and openly shows her medication to anyone who asks about it.

Though Peace’s family has moved to Entebbe, she continues to come to AMS for Victor’s Club meetings, treatment and medication, and other AMS initiatives, such as last year’s music therapy program. Over the summer, Peace was trained at AMS to become a youth peer educator. At this training, she acquired the skills to help HIV positive children and adolescents in her community, and has since helped a number of HIV positive youth in Entebbe find clinics close to their home.

“I love being involved because I am one of them,” Peace said, speaking about the other HIV positive youth in the Victor’s Club. “I used to be like them, refusing to take the drugs. Now, I am healthy. I can help them.”

Peace is now studying counseling at her university. After graduation, she wants to become a minister, spreading messages of love, health , and hope not just in Uganda, but around the world.

“Having HIV is not my fault,” Peace said. “There’s nothing to be done about it. You have to accept the life you were given, and move on.”

A Single Father’s Story of Love and Loss

Henry and his son, Richard, sit next to each other after Henry’s appointment at Alive Medical Services.

Henry’s wife passed away 25 years ago, but looking at him now, you’d think it happened yesterday. His body stiffens as he talks about her, pausing every so often to extract himself from the memories passing through his head.

“We didn’t know until it was too late,” Henry said. “And after she passed, everything changed.”

Back in 1993, Henry had barely realized what happened until his wife was gone. Henry contracted HIV from another partner and unknowingly passed it along to his wife. After she died, Henry was left to care for four children and his elderly mother, all the while battling HIV himself.

At the time, HIV was severely stigmatized in his community, making it difficult for Henry to openly seek help and treatment.

Henry would walk from health clinic to health clinic attempting to find antiretroviral medication. More often than not, he’d reach the pharmacy counter just to be turned away. It seemed that there were never enough antiretrovirals for everyone suffering, causing Henry’s health – and the wellbeing of his family – to drastically decline.

“I was so depressed during those years,” Henry said. “It was hard to get medication, and it was frustrating to have nowhere to go for help.”

Poor health, guilt and depression began to consume Henry, making it nearly impossible to work, feed his family, and gather the strength to keep on living. When he and his youngest son, Richard, came down with tuberculosis, they could barely afford the medication they needed to stay alive.

Eventually, a friend referred Henry to Alive Medical Services, a small clinic that had just opened up near Henry’s house. He has remained an active client ever since, returning again and again for treatment over the last 10 years.

“Without Alive, I wouldn’t have made it,” Henry said. “I’m healthier now than I’ve ever been, not just because I get free ARVs, but because I get free treatment of opportunistic infections too.”

After his health stabilized, Henry was able to recommit himself to his children, all of whom are HIV negative. Henry worked constantly to earn enough money for school fees. Because of that, his first three children now have families of their own – and his youngest son, Richard, just recently finished his degree. Richard now works as an electrician, and routinely accompanies his father to the clinic for check-ups.

“The counsellors at Alive helped me be strong for my children,” Henry said. “For any single fathers dealing with the same situation, I’d tell them this: push hard for your children.”

Thinking of his past, Henry recognized that often, men avoid HIV clinics. They don’t want to be seen there, he said, but they need to be more open to the idea.

“There’s nothing wrong with getting tested and treated,” Henry said. “It keeps you alive. Today, I’m proud to tell my story and show people how I’ve survived.”

Mark Your Calendars: Next Week is #GivingTuesday!

One week from today, people around the world will celebrate #GivingTuesday. First launched in 2012, #GivingTuesday was created to kick off the charitable giving season, boosting the impact of organizations and connecting individuals with causes they care about.

To wrap up 2017 in the most impactful way possible, Alive Medical Services has teamed up with Global Giving to raise funds for our most vulnerable clients: HIV positive women, adolescent girls, and children. We’ve created this new project page to strengthen our  programming for women and children, boosting our support for those most disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic in Uganda.

From 12:01 a.m. to 11:59 p.m. on November 28, 2017, every gift you give toward Alive Medical Services will help us unlock matching funds through Global Giving!

In addition, Global Giving will match every recurring donation made from November 28 to December 31 by 100%, amplifying your impact for HIV positive women, girls and children at AMS.

Every time we work together, we get closer to an AIDS-free Uganda. We are so excited for #GivingTuesday, and we hope you are too!

Stay tuned for updates by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and by signing up for our newsletter!

Peer Educators Come Together for the Last Training of 2017

A peer educator offers a potential solution to a challenge another has voiced.

On Friday, November 17, over 100 peer educators attended a capacity building session at Alive Medical Services (AMS).

Every quarter, peer educators attend these half-day events, which aim to track progress, dissect challenges, and set goals for the future. Once a client becomes a peer educator, they are charged with referring and visiting eight potential or current clients per month, increasing their communities’ access to free HIV testing and care.

“My husband died because of AIDS, and I never knew,” said Eva, a peer educator. “I always felt like if I had known – if he had told me – we could have avoided his death. I became a peer educator because of that, and to show others that being HIV positive doesn’t mean life can’t go on.”

From 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., AMS staff engaged the peer educators in several different sessions. To evaluate the impact of their home visits and referrals, monitoring and evaluation officials went over the groups’ recorded progress. In addition, peer educators voiced the challenges they were facing in their work, sparking conversation about recent successes and setbacks.

One of the challenges highlighted by peer educators was the fact that oftentimes, members of their communities will ask the peer educators to accompany them to the clinic on their first visit. Such accompaniment makes it easier for new clients to locate AMS and feel more comfortable in a new setting – but sometimes, this is not financially feasible for the peer educators.

After discussing the issue and the frequency of such requests, the peer educators came to two solutions: the first, writing out clear directions and detailed instructions of where to go and what to expect when locating the clinic; and the second, to reach out to AMS for transport reimbursement if accompaniment is essential to getting a community member to the clinic.

“Peer educators are instrumental to the comprehensive health care we provide at AMS,” said Geoffrey Nsabimana, a clinical officer at AMS. “These trainings increase peer educators’ skills, and because of that, help them bring in more clients.”

Many of those who attended the training have been peer educators since the program’s launch in 2014. Their experiences – along with their continued attendance at trainings like this one – provided insight for new peer educators, helping the latter navigate their roles and learn how to deal with unexpected challenges.

“AMS is always growing,” said Olivia, a community health worker at AMS. “The capacity building trainings help peer educators manage increased client loads. They also give peer educators a chance to encourage and support each other.”

Later, AMS doctors led a session on the differentiated service delivery model (DSDM). Though this model has been in place at AMS for several years, the clinic is currently looking for ways to strengthen its implementation. By engaging peer educators in this process, AMS will be able to provide DSDM not only at a clinic level, but on a community level too.

“I’ve been a client at AMS since 2007, and I’ve always been treated well,” said Samuel, another peer educator. “I became a peer educator to spread the news about AMS. People in my community don’t realize they provide free services, but I know that if we keep talking, we can reduce the number of people who are getting HIV.”

The next peer educator capacity building training will take place next quarter. In the meantime, the group will go about their monthly duties, expanding AMS’ reach and continuing to educate their communities on HIV/AIDS.

“Peer educators help us to help others,” Olivia said. “Reaching clients is not something we can do alone.”

Irene and Mable pose for a photo at AMS’ peer educator capacity building training. Both women first became peer educators in 2015. “We became peer educators because we wanted to set an example for others,” Mable said. “There are so many HIV positive people in our communities that are not getting treatment because they fear the stigma. We want to help them.”

Meet Janipher, an Administrative Assistant at AMS

For many, getting tested for HIV can seem like an impossible experience. There’s the fear of diagnosis, of course, but also the fear of being seen: if you’re spotted at an HIV clinic, you could be associated with a virus stigmatized by most of the world.

Such perceptions shape the course of Janipher’s days. Often, she is the first person a client sees upon entering Alive Medical Services (AMS). As part of the front desk department, Janipher works with three other colleagues to receive hundreds of people every day. The team helps clients feel comfortable and cared for throughout their time at the clinic, decreasing waiting time and delays.

“I work with clients of all different characters, colors and classes,” Janipher said. “My job is to show everyone they are welcome no matter who they are, and to help them get the care they need.”

Such inclusiveness is important to Janipher. When she was just a young girl, her father passed away unexpectedly, leaving Janipher and her six siblings without a home. His land was seized and sold, but finally, Janipher’s aunt took her in as the 14th child in her family.

With a family so large, it was only through hard work that Janipher was able to make it through school.

“Life wasn’t easy, but I worked hard,” Janipher said. “I was one of the best students at my university. Because of that, they paid for half of my tuition.”

For the past three years, Janipher has worked as an administrative assistant at AMS. She has overcome the struggles from her childhood — but they have also helped Janipher empathize with patients when they are going through a difficult time.

Monday through Saturday, Janipher receives clients, updates patient information, and keeps records. She also enrolls new clients into the system if they test positive for HIV.

“Every client passes through our hands,” Janipher said. “We monitor every step of their visit to the clinic, and make sure things are running smoothly.”

Since she began working at AMS in 2014, Janipher has watched the clinic’s client load rapidly expand in size: today, the front desk team attends to an average of 170 to 250 clients each day. By greeting each one of those clients with warmth, Janipher helps patients feel at ease at AMS, facilitating their return in the future.

“When clients first come in, they often seem hopeless,” Janipher said. “Our department smiles so we can keep them optimistic.”

Food, Education and Hope: The Nutrition Program at AMS

Twice a month, food is laid outside the doors of AMS. As the clinic swells with patients, doctors walk from left to right, spreading nutrition information. One by one, AMS’ community health workers call out clients’ names, all of whom have been previously measured for severe food insecurity. After nurses assess their health status, each client receives seven kilograms of rice, seven kilograms of beans, two kilograms of sugar, and a bag of fresh vegetables.

One of those clients is Esther, a 35-year-old HIV-positive mother and a patient at AMS. Esther’s partner left her a year ago, making it nearly impossible to juggle her job – selling roasted meat alongside the roads of Kampala – with the care of her one-month-old baby, Sharidah, and two other children.

Without her partner’s support, Esther’s income dwindled; she could no longer afford to eat properly. Her breastmilk began to run out, causing Sharidah to lose weight drastically and rapidly.

“At one point, my children would wake up every morning with no food on the table,” Esther said. “Sharidah was so weak, and so was I. I didn’t know what to do.”

On her next visit, AMS staff took note of Sharidah’s weight loss. AMS enrolled the family in AMS’ food program, and started the baby on food aid. At the same time, AMS educated Esther on proper infant feeding practices.

In the four months since then, Sharidah’s health has greatly improved: she’s gained nearly four kilograms, and smiles and laughs easily. She’s even built up enough strength to stand and walk on her own.

Once Sharidah’s weight stabilizes, AMS will phase the family out of the food program. Regardless, we will continue to support them through other initiatives. AMS engages more than 300 HIV positive clients in our gardening program, for example, which is made up of 18 different clubs. By teaching clients how to plant, grow, harvest and sell their own crops, we help clients raise their incomes (and eat healthy food) in a sustainable way.

“Because of AMS, I have high hopes for the future,” Esther said. “HIV – and my other challenges – cannot bring me down.”

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