“I remember I would tell the patient, ‘If it’s at night and you’re feeling sick you must just come here and then throw a stone and then if I hear a stone I know it’s you.’ And they did that!’ Fizo laughs
Fizo’s anecdote is a fitting introduction to the nurses who started the first support group at HAPG. They were really like rays of sunshine in a very dark time in the history of South Africa. HIV came in as a silent, stealthy killer, taking people by surprise with its devastating effects on so many, particularly the poor. Fizo and the other nurses understood the stigma associated with HIV and accommodated their patients in many ways, showing caring, consideration and a great degree of patience.
Fizo Lelaka started working with HAPG in 1995 and soon after recruited Petronella Ramalotja to work with her and Rebecca Baloyi. They were joined by Gladys Malete, making up the four nursing sisters who volunteered their time to support HAPG in providing care and support to those living with HIV or affected by it.
As Fizo’s statement suggests, people were afraid to come out about their status, putting themselves and others at increased risk because of this. Even having the HAPG vehicle parked outside their homes was something to be avoided at all costs. The nurses would have to see some patients after dark, hidden from the view of the community.
The nurses remember with fondness the awareness campaigns they did, visiting schools, churches and other places where people gathered.
The nurses and others at HAPG persevered with their tasks despite the resistance to what they were offering. As time went on, more and more people came for treatment. The nurses would visit people at their homes, constantly encouraging them to come to the clinic. In time, community members got to trust these nurses above all others.
It is this dedication to their community and commitment to their calling that led the four nursing sisters who have offered their support to HAPG to do so in the early days of the pandemic. All four of them are still with HAPG today, working on a voluntary basis after hours.
People preferred coming to HAPG nurses than others, according to Rebecca because
“When I was with them I would listen to them I would explain whatever problems they had; but with other people - some of the nurses - they still had that stigma or were afraid to touch or nurse or even to talk about HIV. The nurses were seeing very sick people with bed sores – the signs and symptoms were very obvious - but they didn’t know, or didn’t know how to deal with them. We (the HAPG nurses) could see this person might have HIV and then do counselling and testing with them.”
Unlike nowadays, at that time people would not come to the clinic, ending up so sick they would be bedridden. The nurses, doing their home based care, would have to do everything, from washing soiled patients to dressing bed-sores.
It was their patience and the testimonies of the support group members that slowly gained people’s trust and got them to come to the clinic despite their fears of a positive diagnosis.
For those who had no money to go the clinic or the hospital, HAPG offered transport, food parcels and payment of fees where necessary.
The nurses would go to visit their patients before work and would be back after they knocked off from work. When they diagnosed patients at the hospital they would send them on to the HAPG clinic for treatment.
There were also many losses along the way, times that caused the nurses tremendous sadness.
They were given hope by the patients whose lives they saved.