Sunday, 7 July 2013


Two weeks ago.  Saturday.  We were conducting a training for church members in HIV care.

This is a course that we have developed over the past decade.  Each year we change it a tiny bit, but the basics have been in place since 2006 at least.

She stood out among the other participants.  Her hand went up more often.  She spoke from the heart.  Her questions were insightful.

Lets give her a name.  We will call her Tanya.

Tanya came to our training with an elderly lady - a retired nurse who is a real prayer-warrior and who clearly is a mentor to Tanya.  They both are from a fairly far-away church well outside Mumbai.  We learned later that Tanya sells trinkets in the local trains to support herself and her daughters. 

It was our second session.  The one we talk about treating people with HIV.  Tanya and her mentor had attended the first session and were actively participating in this one.

Sheba took the talk on treating our Positive Friends when they fall sick.  She went through a series of common symptoms that people with HIV get when their immunity is lowered.  And then talked about what opportunistic infections cause these symptoms.  The next step is helping our participants discover what can be treated at home, and what needs to be referred for medical advice... and when do you need to bundle the person into the nearest autorickshaw and immediately take them to the hospital!

As she went through her presentation, Sheba came to 'Herpes Zoster.'  This is actually a recurrence of the chikenpox virus - and it happens occasionally with people who have low immunities - from a pregnancy - or some stress issues.  But for people who have HIV, it is often the first symptom that they might have HIV.

Herpes Zoster usually manifests as a line of painful blisterlike sacs, usually following the line of a nerve.  Locally it is called 'nagin' (snake).  People who get it are often afraid that if it manages to 'encircle' them, that they will die, because the 'snake' will kill them.

In reality, Herpes Zoster does no real damage.  It usually resolves in a few days - sometimes taking up to 2 weeks to do so.  But it can be quite painful. 

So Sheba asked the group.  "Do you know anyone who has had 'nagin'?"

Tanya's hand went up.

"I have had it" she told us all.

Sheba was surprised at the answer, but continued the conversation, and Tanya told how she had experienced Herpes Zoster some months previously.   I felt a slight catch in my chest when Tanya shared about

At lunch Sheba sat next to Tanya and asked her when she had been tested for HIV.  "Me?  I have not been tested."

Silence.  Sheba then gently probed about her family history.  Tanya's husband had left her for another woman 2 years previously.  She is currently a single working mother, who has found tremendous hope in Jesus through the local church she is part of.

Sheba broached the issue of getting tested.  "It's always better to know " Sheba said.  If you are negative, then that is great.  But if you are positive, then here is the place to get help, and now is the time to know.

Tanya agreed to be tested, and that evening, after the day of training, I saw Tanya and her dear mentor-friend go into our HIV testing and counselling room to talk with our counsellor and have Tanya's blood sample taken.  It had been a long fulfilling Saturday.  Here was another of our trainees who agreed to be tested.  We have always told folks that we train that it is good to get testing for HIV if you have any question in your mind.  Over the years we must have counselled and tested at least 50 trainees.  The reports of each one of these had been HIV negative.

Sheba and I talked later.  Would Tanya's report come positive?  We so much hoped it wouldn't.

On Monday we knew.

Tanya is HIV positive.   She came the next day with the stalwart friend and mentor of hers, and another lady from her church.  Sheba told Tanya the news.  It was hard to tell her, and Tanya was deeply shocked.  But this brave woman decided to face the truth - and trust that God will help her.  Her friends were a great help as well, being with Tanya through this ordeal, helping her have her children tested too.  Encouraging and praying with Tanya.

Yesterday Tanya and her mentor came for the third session of the Training.  Only Sheba, the counsellor and I know that over the past 2 weeks, Tanya's identity has changed from being a person who has come to learn to help people with HIV - to being a person living with HIV herself.

She is a remarkably brave woman, choosing to participate just as much as before.

We are now waiting to see how much the HIV has progressed in her.  I thought she would seek Sheba out with the reports from the CD4 test she did last week.  But she did not.  Along with her mentor, another lady who does not know about her new-found status came as well.  Tanya told Sheba that she would come back tomorrow for a further consultation.

At the beginning of this batch of training church members in HIV care, we would never have imagined that one of the trainees would end up as a person that we are directly helping to understand and live with their HIV.   But at the end of the day, what better place for Tanya to be than to be with people who have been able to help her take the first steps of addressing HIV in her life.  What a blessing that she has a wonderful prayerful mentor who is such a rock of support to her.  

What an honour for us to serve Tanya.  We have quite a road ahead, but she has taken some very courageous first steps.

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