Then Maria, a volunteer health worker, started visiting Carmen. Maria was trained by Socios En Salud, a local group that works with the Ministry of Health to care for people living in poverty. Maria now comes every day. She helps Carmen manage her medicines. She checks up on her health. She sits with her, talks with her, plays with her baby.
Imagine being delighted to discover you are pregnant. Going to the doctor for prenatal care. A routine test suggests you are HIV-positive.
When this happened to a woman I’ll call Carmen, in Lima, Peru, she was absolutely sure there was a mistake. She didn’t even panic. She told the health workers it was impossible, she couldn’t be HIV-positive, they’d have to test again.
The second test confirmed the first results. Carmen was devastated. She felt full of new life and terrified of death.
She did everything she could to make sure her daughter would be free of HIV. But once her child was born, Carmen stopped taking care of herself. The medicines were complex and difficult to manage. She was overwhelmed with family responsibilities. She became dangerously ill.
Even still, when her brother was diagnosed with tuberculosis, it was Carmen who went to care for him. She became infected herself. The TB complicated her HIV symptoms, and she could barely manage her life.
Maria is a friend, a confidante, a kind of auntie and godmother. She herself survived tuberculosis treatment years ago. She’s kind, gentle, sympathetic, and she’s also tough. She is Carmen’s advocate, and she’s also an advocate for the community as a whole. Maria says, if Carmen gives up her treatments, the community could suffer, by having a more contagious person in the mix.
Maria says, when she sees people in the marketplace who seem to show symptoms of infectious disease, she insists they go with her to the health clinic.
Almost all of the volunteer health workers are women. They visit patients in their own neighborhoods. They’re as poor as the people they serve.
Their commitment is intensive and long-term. Health workers agree to visit their assigned patients every day for about two years. The relationship becomes a kind of medicine in itself.
Patients thrive under this kind of watchful attention. The visiting health workers can pick up on early signs that something is amiss – a fever, odd aches or pains. They can get the patient to a doctor before the small symptom spirals into a life-threatening force.
The health workers told us about the rewards of tending a patient who slowly builds strength and energy, and revives from near-death. It makes one wonder about the curative power of simple human kindness and dedicated attention. And maybe it works both ways, shining on both the patient and the visitor.