Living With HIV: ‘The Truth Sets Me Free’

By Debbie DeVoe

The year 2006 wasn’t such a good one for Mary Waithira Kariuki. First, the 47-year-old Kenyan came down with pneumonia in July. During her two-week hospital stay, the doctors also tested her for tuberculosis and for HIV. Both tests came back positive.

When she heard the news, Mary didn’t wail or cry. Living her deep Catholic faith, she accepted her status right away. She knew God wouldn’t have her face anything more than she was capable of confronting. And she also knew that her husband’s drinking and loose ways might get her into trouble one day. She just didn’t know how much trouble.

The doctors put her on an eight-month course of treatment for the tuberculosis. When her husband also tested positive for HIV, they immediately put him on antiretroviral treatment due to his weakened immune system. Unfortunately, neither treatment worked.

Tragic Circumstances

When Mary’s first course of tuberculosis treatment failed, her doctor started her on a second round and put her on antiretroviral treatment as well. She quickly began feeling much better and stronger.

Then a few months later, in July 2007, Mary’s right leg was hit hard by a stone kicked up by a car on a Nairobi street. The leg swelled up terribly and just wouldn’t heal, so she returned to the hospital. The doctors eventually recommended surgery and a six-month hospital stay to recuperate.

With Mary in the hospital, her husband had a hard time caring for himself and their five children. He had stopped drinking when he started taking antiretroviral medications, but, with his health further weakened by diabetes, his liver failed.

One day, lying on her hospital bed a month after her surgery, Mary was told her husband had died. She couldn’t even get up to comfort her children or take care of the funeral arrangements. Her sisters came to town to help. Her 24-year-old son, though, would now need to care for all of the children.

Good Medicine and Deep Faith

Somehow Mary survived four more months in the hospital and then another three months at home in a wheelchair. Her eldest son continued to care for both her and his siblings—with some help from friends—though Mary also believes God cared for them all.

"I trust in God. He’s a caring God and a healer," Mary says. "In my heart I had great courage and faith that it wasn’t my time to die." Without this faith, she is sure she wouldn’t have survived. And somehow, her children were able to feed themselves and her during her hospital stay.

Little by little, Mary’s strength increased. Fortunately, as a government employee with the Ministry of Lands, she had insurance to cover her hospital stay and medical fees. She is now up and walking, though her leg still aches from time to time. And she’s working again, in a position closer to her home that lets her sit and type instead of standing all day.

Sharing her Positive Spirit

Mary is thankful for the support and medications she receives from Nazareth Hospital outside of Nairobi, one of the 27 faith-based health facilities in Kenya that Catholic Relief Services supports through the AIDSRelief consortium to provide HIV care and treatment. She is also thankful for her HIV support group for giving her the additional emotional strength so critical to healing.

Now Mary wants to make sure anyone living with HIV understands that it is not a death sentence. If people are just willing to go to their local hospital, they can get the medicine they need, typically free of charge.

"The whole world needs to know, needs encouragement to know you can live well," Mary explains. "I accept this is what God wants me to face. Sharing the truth sets me free."

Debbie DeVoe is the Nairobi, Kenya-based regional information officer for Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the U.S. Catholic community.

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