It was getting dark and we were still out on the search for all of our HIV moms with newborns and infants. The wonderful news had come that morning that the Mudabulo Hospital had received a supply of the special infant HIV tests and that they were willing to reserve 10 of them for me for children in our villages. What a blessing to have true friends willing to help! The adult testing kits don’t work on infants, and unless you can test a kid and can prove that they are HIV positive these little kids can’t get enrolled in the program to get the ARVs and without the ARVs the kids will in most instances end up dying before they ever get old enough for the adult tests to work on them. The system is logical and rational (the government can’t after all give these very expensive medicines out to people unless it is known for sure that they really need them!), but the system is also frustrating and heartbreaking (the adult testing kits won’t pick up the virus in children under 18 months and the special testing kits for infants never seem to make it to our part of the world). It’s been nearly a year and a half since we opened our HIV/AIDS clinic and we’ve yet to receive even once the special HIV tests for infants. Last year the huge Lugoda Hospital received only 10 testing kits and they let me send only one infant from all of our villages to get tested. So with the opportunity to test 10 kids in a single day, we had to hurry to get word out. Almost all of my friends are well enough now to be back out working in their fields and so the only time to find them would be in the very, very late afternoon or early evening after they had finished their farming work for the day and were now at home taking care of their families.
Getting news to these ladies fast meant finding someone reliable in each neighborhood who we could trust to not give up and to go to each of their houses and to make sure that the mother understood that this was a chance that we couldn’t miss because there would be no second chance. So we chose ten names (that was hard!), and made a list of who to visit and who we would give them the responsibility of finding the moms. Joseph was the first person on our list. We had three women I was counting on him to find that night, one being Sofi who had just come back from the Kibao Hospital with her sick little baby. But before we were even able to explain our evening’s mission, he interjected his urgent news that Sofi’s baby had just died. I grieve for Sofi – she is much poorer than most here, she’s a mother of four, she has epilepsy and is handicapped from having fallen repeatedly into cooking fires when her unpredictable epilepsy attacks come on. We were coming with the good news that I was hoping would save her baby’s life and lift a part of the heavy load that she bears, but the special testing kits had simply come too late.
So very much has to “go just right” for a baby not to get the virus for a mom who is HIV positive. The most important thing is for the mom to have her baby at the hospital so that she herself can take a special dose of the ARV medicines, and then for the child at birth to be given 5 special drops of “something” that I’m not even sure what it is that will greatly reduce the chance of transmission. Many of the women in our area never make it to a hospital to give birth (which is why so many women all across this continent die in childbirth) – but for those of my friends who we know are infected we’ve got to do everything to make sure that they get to a hospital as soon as they go into labor. And then we either have to get that baby on formula (which is outrageously expensive) or else we’ve got to do everything to make sure that the mother understands that while it is safe to breastfeed your child during the first 6 months, it is only safe if you never give the child anything else to eat or drink during that time, and then after 6 months it’s absolutely essential to completely stop nursing the baby and to make sure the child is getting regular powdered milk and special infant cereal that my students and I are able to make and prepare. Most of my friends can’t read and write, most of them have never been to school, and so it takes a lot of other people in their neighborhoods to help to make sure that they do what is right, and that they do it all the time. The whole thing is a battle and a fight – but when we reach the end and the child at 18 months tests negative it is an incredibly wonderful victory.
When I went to the Mudabulo Hospital myself the next day, I was thrilled to see that eight women were already there with their babies! I’m Bibi and so they’re all like my grandkids now. It was a little party – lots of hugs, and congratulations to each other for actually getting the news and coming all this distance for infant testing. I quickly took note of who was there, knowing that we needed to find the rest. And then I got the good news that there were 20 remaining tests, and they said they would reserve an additional ten tests for me the next day! To help ten kids in a single day thrilled my soul – to get to help another ten the very next day seemed too good to be true! So I quickly rushed home, gleaned more names from my files, prepared names of contacts for each village and sent word out. The first greeting the next morning though brought word that a baby had died – a little girl named Susan whose name I had written on the list. News like this is almost too painful to comprehend when we are all trying so hard and when victory seems right within our grasp.
That’s when you have to choose – to give in to despair, or to believe that God would have us work together as moms so that other moms don’t have to live through this same kind of pain.
That’s when you have to choose – to give in to despair, or to take comfort in seeing the incredibly special women here who inspire me – women like Elizabeth. This woman still rejoices, even after losing so many of her babies to the virus. I wonder if I could. I’d like to think I could be like her, but I don’t know. She, like so many others here, knows sorrow, deep sorrow. Fifteen years ago she had her first child, a girl who is now in the seventh grade. But the rest of her babies all died – every single one of them. Snatched away without her having any way at all to understand what was happening to her children. When finally she and her husband learned that they had the virus, it all made sense. It wasn’t witchcraft like everyone said. It wasn’t anything she was doing wrong as others whispered. It was a virus. And in her old age, Elizabeth got pregnant and she and her husband now have a new tremendously beloved little baby who looks so healthy and happy, a little baby they chose to name Grace. When Grace was born, because they knew Elizabeth had the virus, she got a special dose of ARVs, and her infant got those special five drops at birth. And we knew exactly what to try to do month after month in order to give Grace a chance at life without the virus. We’ve lived all these months without knowing though if Grace really had made it through without getting the virus, and every time she would get sick with anything at all, we lived with the question if it weren’t a sign that she was infected. And now after all of these months we have tested Grace and we have real hope that she does not have the virus – and Elizabeth just keeps thanking the Lord over and over again that she was able to protect her baby. The medicines at the right time, formula and milk power and knowing all the rules and exactly what to do, and we have a healthy happy virus-free baby with a wonderful future – and a mother who can share with other mothers that there is hope!
We pray for a cure. We pray for more ways to help those in their hour of need. And we pray that together we can hope those on the verge of despair to choose to have hope. And together we rejoice with each victory the Lord gives us. I write to so many people so I never know who I ask to pray about what anymore – so for all of you who have started praying for all of my “grandkids” in these villages, I do want to thank you – and for anyone who wants to join in with us, please do. I love telling my moms here that we have people all over Tanzania and all over the world who care enough about them and their children that they’re asking God to do grant us gracious favors – and I enjoy showing them all that God continues to shower down upon us – the formula, the milk powder, the medicines, and so much more! Everything seemed frighteningly hopeless – terrifying really – just a few years ago, but God has indeed shown great kindness to the people in our villages here. We are blessed!
In His service,