"Begging Them To Live": A Nurse’s Passion For AIDS-Education Invigorates the Ganta Community
*By Karen A. Cheng and Jody Madala
March 18, 2009—There's a lot to be proud of when talking about Angeline Willicors' accomplishments. A spunky and spirited registered nurse, Angie, as she is called, heads up the community-based HIV/AIDS counseling team at Ganta United Methodist Hospital in Liberia. She works hard to build capacity about a topic still taboo in the local community she serves. With sponsorship from United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), Angie earned her Anti-retroviral Therapy (ART) specialization certificate in Kenya.
As one of the only two nurses in Liberia specifically trained in HIV/AIDS prevention and education, Angie built a solid reputation as an AIDS-educator soon after she arrived in Ganta in 2005. Last year, The National AIDS Control Program (NACP) of Liberia, awarded Angie and the Ganta team with the 'Best HIV Program in Liberia.' Although this is a prestigious designation, Angie's passion comes from the people she serves and counsels, not by worldly acknowledgements.
"She's only 26 years old and came to me in tears...she couldn't stop losing weight, she couldn't keep food in her system, her stool was loose...and in a whisper, the girl said to me, 'I'm afraid, I think I have AIDS but please do not tell my family,'" explains Angie. A furtive glance from the girl who sat hunched, shaking and coughing before her, revealed symptoms all too familiar to Angie. Thin, pale and sickly-looking, the girl needed testing. Angie began conversing with the girl to help calm down her hysterical crying. "I want to relax them and get them to talk," said Angie. "Talk, talk, talk. Every time, this is how I gain their trust. Then they come straight back to me." With her hand tapping the door, Angie continues, "See this door, it's always open and they know that I will talk to them. I've even learned how to take blood directly for the HIV-test because people don't want to leave this room and go to the lab."
Angie asked this girl to sit down and share her story. A simple conversation, the first step to gain a potential client's trust, is Angie's way of easing into more serious subjects. For those that test positive, Angie's goals go well past the basic blood test to determine a client's HIV-positive status. They take a long-term prospective that include such topics as one-on-one counseling and community support groups, managing opportunistic infections, adhering to the anti-retroviral medication and how to 'live' with the HIV virus.
During their talk, Angie recalled seeing this girl in neighboring Guinea right after the war ended in 2004. Fifteen years of civil war had displaced and disconnected most Liberian communities, leaving children like this girl to live on the streets for survival. Angie learned that the girl, a commercial sex worker near the Liberian-Guinea border, came from a poor family and had no means to secure school fees. Without education and community support during that volatile wartime, the girl fell easily into the clutches of the sex trade.
"Initially this girl didn't even believe that HIV/AIDS was real! Can you believe that?" said Angie. "Maybe because education about this disease ten years earlier was not prevalent. Information passed by word-of-mouth doesn't always originate from reliable sources. Myths are created and facts are not readily available," explains Angie. "What's worse is that one of her partners told her over and over that condoms themselves actually spread AIDS and there was a website that confirmed this. Having unprotected sex was okay."
This type of statement infuriated Angie who wanted to get to the bottom of the matter to help remove the stigma that plagued the girl's mind. Over the next few counseling sessions, Angie challenged the girl to find the website. In the end, it was never found.
Angie's love of humanitarian work and frustration with the power of stigma, drives her to travel each week from village-to-village with the Ganta Hospital community-based health care team. The team educates communities about HIV/AIDS, but also encourages a "no discrimination policy."
"Many AIDS patients face discrimination and are labeled a 'Na-ma'deh' (a part of a traditional Liberian rubber tree with dangerous splinters that sticks in a person for life). The stigma of AIDS is like this," says Angie in dismay. "If it sticks to you, you can never move no matter how hard you try." These disparaging labels can cause many HIV-positive individuals to feel alone, become deeply depressed or contemplate suicide. So Angie decided to take on another duty. She told them to live.
"Some would call me in the middle of the night and ask if they would live," explains Angie. "Yes, I would pick up my phone, I had to. Then others I would chase and call them. It was almost like I'm begging them to live. I told them 'Yes, you will live if you take your medication. Stop the risky business. Continue with your program even if you feel a little better.' This is what I would tell them and I know they trusted me."
After hours of talking to the clients who pass in and out of her office, after an entire day in the bush at Lehgen Village leading a women's discussion group, and after several phone calls with a client needing encouragement that she can live with the disease, Angie's work for the day is still not finished. As part of the group's community AIDS prevention activity, she will spend the evening at local nightclubs to demystify condom use. And how will she do this? No doubt with more talking, more trust building and her usual dose of spunk.
How You Can Help
You can support UMCOR's work in Ganta United Methodist Hospital and programs like these by giving to Hospital Revitalization, UMCOR Advance #982168. To learn more about Ganta Hospital, please click here.
*Karen A. Cheng and Jody Madala are UMCOR Health consultants.