HIV infection not end of the world

WHILE other people spend their weekends either relaxing at home or engaging in recreational activities, Fu Choon Kee passes hers at the Sarawak General Hospital (SGH). This is the only time she can meet up with “her children.”

And this has been going on for years. Rain or shine, she will be at the second floor (Pintu R, Klinik Pakar) of the hospital without fail.

The SGH’s chief matron trades her weekends, counselling people living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). She regards them as her children. And for her voluntary work with HIV-AIDS patients, she was awarded the Dr Siti Hasmah Award 2004.

There is nothing more meaningful for the mother of three than giving encouragement and hope to this group of people.

She said HIV-positives were living at their wits’ end — confused and afraid after finding out their condition.

“The stigma has driven them up the wall and they just don’t know how to get on with their lives anymore. It’s like reaching a dead end,” Fu told thesundaypost.

“Because of their condition, they isolate themselves. Life is very stressful for them,” added Fu who counsels on average between two and four cases a week.

“Perhaps more worrying is that HIV-positives dread seeking medical attention and counselling because of social stigmatisation.”

How do you exactly motivate HIV-positives to be more positive about life?

Tell them it’s not the end of the world, said to Fu who first started counselling in 1996.

“Make them understand that so long as they take their medications, they can lead a normal life.”

But she knows it’s easier said than done. When a 14-year-old girl showed up at the counselling room one day, Fu was lost for words.

“It was very difficult to describe the sadness and pain written all over the young girl’s face that day. It felt as if everything had fallen apart for her,” she sighed.

“If people being counselled are terribly upset, it’s best to let them cry their hearts out,” she said, adding that trying to start a conversation could complicate matters.

“Talk to them when they are more settled because by then, they are more receptive to suggestions.”

The teenaged girl — though still going for counselling — is starting to look at life in a positive manner, according to Fu.

Her parents are also giving her very strong support.

Elaine (not her real name) was also on the verge of taking her own life before counselling on dealing with stigmatisation and looking at life in a positive light.

The 40-year-old was among the HIV-positives who shared their personal testimonies during a recent media workshop on HIV-AIDS in Kuala Lumpur.

The former nurse in a private hospital revealed that through Positive Living, a programme organised by PT Foundation, she rediscovered the hope to live.

PT is a non-governmental at organisation (NGO) helping people living with HIV.

Elaine is now a full-time volunteer with the foundation, travelling widely, including to hospitals, to share her experience and bring hope to HIV-positives.

Apart from spreading the message of hope, her mission is to share with the patients what she has been through personally.

She wants to let them know that like her, they can carry on with a positive outlook. To do this, she travelled to Durban, South Africa, in 2000.

In the same situation was Klang-born Azura (not her real name), 42, who got infected through her late husband — an injecting drug user. Out of fear, she kept her condition from her family.

The fact that she did not know where to seek counselling further compounded her misery. To fulfill her late mother’s wish, she re-married but kept her condition to herself.

She was about four months pregnant when her condition came to light. Consequently, her second husband who was not infected was given counselling on how to prevent transmission of the virus. But sadly by then, their marriage was insalvageable and the couple parted ways.

There seemed no end to Azura’s suffering. Life dealt her another severe blow when her infant son was found HIV-positive.

When the day finally came for Azura to enroll her little boy in a primary school, she got another devastating blow. Being a responsible mother, she thought she was doing the right thing by making known her son’s condition to the school management. What followed was heart-breaking — Azura’s world fell apart when her son’s registration was rejected.

But all was not lost. Dr Kamarul Azhar Mohd Razali, paediatric consultant and infectious diseases consultant at Kuala Lumpur Hospital, saw her plight and extended a helping hand.

Like Elaine, Azura went through several sessions of counselling to get her life back on track. Through the PT Foundation, she got the much needed moral support.

She is now a volunteer with the foundation, devoting her time to helping HIV-positives beside being a mother.

Like Elaine’s, her wish is to motivate HIV-positives to carry on with their lives. And for her, there is nothing more meaningful than giving them a sense of hope.

Azura’s parting word at the workshop was for all people living with HIV or those at risk of being infected to seek medical attention.

She also urged them to get the necessary support from NGOs.

Meanwhile, the soft-spoken Fu who has been in the nursing profession for 31 years, said on average it would take about 10 counselling sessions to get HIV-positives back on their feet again.

“Most of them will be able to accept they are HIV-positive and start getting on with their lives,” she said.

In an email reply to thesundaypost recently, the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) Representative, Malaysia, Youssouf Oomar said their mission was anchored on changing society’s negative and discriminating attitudes towards people living with HIV.

Unicef had empowered HIV-positives with information to help them overcome anxieties and continue with their lives, Youssouf said.

“Empowering society with knowledge will not only help tackle one of the heaviest burdens on the well-being of people with HIV but also make good sense from a prevention perspective.”

He revealed they were influencing such change through education and information, advocacy, research and capacity building.

But for this to produce effective results, they needed to work in partnership with the government, celebrities, faith-based leaders and the media, he stressed.

“We work with our partners to protect human dignity for all regardless of their HIV status. Only when there is dignity can a person be positive and hopeful about life and the future.”

Youssouf concurred that counselling and care were important in helping HIV-positives cope with and overcome the stress of a positive diagnosis.

In this, he said, the support was based on active concern for the well-being of HIV-positive individuals, helping them to improve their quality of life and enabling them and their families to go through with their problems.

In Malaysia, counselling is available at government hospitals as well as NGOs such as the Malaysian AIDS Council and PT Foundation.

According to Youssouf, there are several HIV-positive support networks in the country run by HIV-positives for HIV-positives.

“These networks play a vital role in helping individuals to be better informed about the virus, treatment options and seeking comfort to overcome their fears,” he said.

“It is our practice to refer any enquiries we receive from HIV-positive individuals to these organisations as they are best positioned to provide support.

“Unicef respects the work of these organisations — their invaluable efforts in mitigating the harm of HIV and protecting the dignity of people living with the virus,” he said.

For Fu, her mission to help HIV-positives reaches out to the outstations like Tebedu, Lundu, Bau and as far as Simunjan.

“We give them support and medication,” she said.

“Besides supporting people living with HIV, we also do dressing or clear rubbish for stroke patients bed-ridden at home.”

And together with the voluntary bodies, she brings rice, biscuits, milk powder and even uniform to children orphaned by HIV.

For Fu, everyday is a happy day so long as she gets to help the less fortunate. And she considers her vocation a blessing.

Meanwhile, she hoped those exposed to more than one sexual partner would go for a free checking. They can do so at second floor (Pintu R, Klinik Pakar) of SGH.

“At all times, we must stay true to our partners and should never break our marriage vow. Love and cherish your family. Don’t make mistakes that you will live to regret,” she said.

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