Like the unclean leper ...

Thandi* is a 31 year old mother, unqualified and unemployed. She lives in a rural area approximately 35 kilometres from Mandeni and is ecstatic when her boyfriend comes home from Durban to visit her. When Sipho* walks in the door, Thandi can sense immediately that there is something wrong. She tries to find out what is troubling him but he avoids answering her. That night she comforts him and falls pregnant, not realising that she has put herself in severe danger. All the time Sipho is with her she has an uneasy feeling, but cannot pinpoint the problem. Thandi questions Sipho about his life in Durban, where he is working and deducts that he has another common-law wife there and possibly a child or two. Finally he confesses that he has betrayed her with another woman. All his promises of paying lobola (bride price) for her and with it her hope to get married have dissipated and suddenly she has no future to look forward to. Her family is also very disappointed. Sipho leaves for Durban with no intention of ever returning to Thandi. She is devastated.

About two months later Thandi has her nagging suspicion confirmed when the nurse at the hospital tells her she is pregnant. At the same time the nurse takes the routine sample of blood. Thandi tests HIV negative. A wave of relief passes over Thandi. But this is short lived because at her next antenatal check up, the nurse takes another blood sample – this time she is tested HIV positive. The feelings of despair, anguish and disappointment are almost too much to bear. Then the nurse assures her that there is a possibility that her baby might not necessarily become infected with the H I Virus. The months go by and Thandi grows to love the little baby she is carrying. When her baby boy is born he looks healthy. She names him Bhekithemba*.

During the course of four years Thandi starts developing symptoms of AIDS. She gets weaker, loses weight, develops Pulmonary Tuberculosis and Kaposi’s sarcoma (an AIDS related skin cancer) and Bhekithemba also tests HIV positive. He is diagnosed with Pulmonary Tuberculosis as well. They are living in her parental kraal (a rural Zulu home made up of several mud huts), but the family has totally ostracised them. They refuse them access to the common family hut and isolate them in a remote little hut by themselves. The other children are told not to play with Bhekithemba. Thandi and Bhekithemba are both lonely and depressed. Too sick to fend for themselves, they are given food by a child putting a bowl on the floor and pushing it under the door and then running away. Like “the unclean leper” they are left totally alone. There is no water to drink or to wash and no toilet. One can only imagine what Thandi must be feeling - the humiliation and the indignity. Her own family pushes them out, disowns them and treats them worse than the goats and dogs outside!

Somehow the social workers hear about Thandi and Bhekithemba’s plight. They visit the kraal and discover the disgusting and inhuman circumstances which the pair have been subjected to.

The social worker contacts Blessed Gérard’s Care Centre which does not hesitate to prepare a place for both Thandi and Bhekithemba. The next day the social worker brings them to the hospice. They are weak, dirty, hungry and desperate. Thandi is now in a ward with eight other women whose health status is even worse than hers. Bhekithemba improves tremendously after receiving lots of good food and all the necessary medication so that within a week he can be transferred to Blessed Gérard’s Children’s Home. He attends nursery school along with the other children and visits his mother every afternoon. The social workers want Thandi’s family to come to Blessed Gérard’s Hospice to visit their daughter and grandson and to be educated about HIV / AIDS, for which they have such an irrational fear, but they keep refusing to come.

Psychologically Thandi has given up hope of her family accepting her back into their home. She is devastated by the fact that not one of her relatives cares enough about her and her little boy to visit her. This state of mind prevents her from continuing to live with a positive attitude. She starts getting depressed. She has lost interest in eating and is losing even more weight. She expresses her wish that Blessed Gérard’s Children’s Home will take care of her son when she is gone. The medical staff and care givers try their very best to lift Thandi out of her depression. But to no avail. Thandi starts having headaches and sleeping more and more. The treatment, which the doctor has prescribed, has no effect. The decision is taken to transfer Thandi to hospital for further management. But she never makes it back to the Hospice. She dies in hospital from TB meningitis, leaving her sick little boy behind.

How do we tell Bhekithemba that his mother will never come back? How do we explain to the family that they need to take care of the little boy?

We contact the family of Thandi, through the social worker, who tells us that the family are not interested and are not going to organise for Thandi to be buried. They are also not interested in Bhekithemba and as far as they are concerned he can stay with us until he too dies.

Unfortunately, we are not legally permitted to give Bhekithemba Antiretroviral Therapy. Only his family can take this responsibility. Bhekithemba’s future is obviously a short one. But he continues to attend the Pre-Primary school with the other children. We treat all his opportunistic infections and give him all the care and love that he needs.

* The story is true, but the names are fictitious to protect their identity.

This page is part of the Newsletter No. 24 of the Brotherhood of Blessed Gérard

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This page was last updated on Tuesday, 15 January 2013 12:49:44