Saturday, March 3, 2012

Home is Where the Healthcare is

My face was wet with clammy perspiration. I rolled onto my side and projectile-vomited into what I hoped was the trashcan. After a good ten minutes of purging my body of whatever poison had been in it, I took a look around to survey the damage. Yes! I made it all into the trashcan…. Oh shit. The trashcan had holes in it… What kind of trashcan has holes in it? What had previously been the contents of my insides were beginning to form a small lake on the clean tile floor. Weakly, I got up on shaky legs and went out into the main part of my “home”. The apartment was empty except for my nine-year-old Chinese homestay brother. Exhaustedly, I searched for paper towels and plastic bags. I found them, got on my hands and knees, and began to clean up the mess I had made. It was of course, too soon, and I got sick again while attempting to mop up my previous mess. After my body was cleansed of toxins from my belly, it was time for my eyes to be cleansed as well. As I started to sob, I let the words “I just wanna be… hoooo-meee” escape.

Flash forward to about a week ago… My roommate Nicki is curled in the fetal position after about her fifth vomiting frenzy of the day. Jean, the wonderful woman we are living with in South Africa, simply says, “What a pity. When you are sick, you just want to go home.”

She couldn’t have said it better.

But why is it when we fall ill, our bodies and minds want nothing more to be home? What is it that really constitutes our homes and makes us yearn for them so desperately when we just don’t feel good?

Here, in South Africa, I’ve encountered some, well, pretty sick people. Some of my patients are HIV positive, and others are battling TB. Their homes are nothing like mine. They are either shacks made of tattered wood and lacking running water, or much nicer small homes that the government has allotted them. And yet, there is an overwhelming sense of positive energy and contentment among the sick. I believe that this is in part, because they are at home.

Yet, it is not the material possessions that make the home. It is an intangible. It is support.

I have spent a part of two mornings this week speaking with HIV/AIDS patients conducting research for my media project. While speaking to them, the question of support has come up several times. Everyone I have spoken with has stated that it is support that keeps him or her alive, in some cases, even more so than the ARVs.

So where is this support coming from? In large part, families, if they are among those lucky enough to have them. However, it is not only blood relations that keep a person alive here in the townships. Willing neighbors that run next-door each morning to ensure that their sick friend is indeed taking their tablets also constitute an amazing level of support here. Beyond that, the caregivers play an incredible role in their patients’ lives.

The caregivers take on their patients as if they are family. They get angry with them when the sick turn to drinking and smoking as coping methods. Caregivers arrange rides and transport to doctor appointments. These incredible teams of diligent women, bearing no medical degrees, manage to save lives, each and every day. Patients need food to make their medications, but many are too poor to afford meals. So, caregivers make sure they have food to eat. When visiting their patients, they don’t just record the blood pressures and leave. They take a seat on the couch, discuss the daytime soaps with the sick, ask about their kids, and catch up on the neighborhood gossip. Caregivers take health care to mean more than just dispensing medicine and recording vital stats. They take the mental well being, the emotional health of the patient into account and give true HEALTH care. It is not just the physical componets of a person that keep them alive, it’s the support they have and the reasons the support gives them to live another day.

I can’t help but wonder what you are imagining these caretakers to look like. If you are thinking of a white woman coming in from the rich part of town to cater to the poor’s needs, you are wrong. The caretakers are colored or black women (depending on what township you are in. Don’t think that all black people are the same. You are wrong). They are residents of the township that they work in. They are the neighbors and friends of the sick. They are women each fighting their own battles.

My caregiver, Zoleka, is an absolutely stunning woman. Not only do I find her incredibly beautiful, but also her strength and compassion is nothing short of honorable. She herself as a single mother, houses seven children, only one being biologically hers. She has taken in her two dead sister’s kids and two grandkids, her sick brother’s little girl, as well as an abandoned baby she named Simcard (because she was so sick and skinny, she was no bigger than a simcard) that she saved while working at Child Welfare Services five years ago. Add in the one she birthed herself, and you have a pack of seven. Although she herself is not the victim of infectious disease, her life is nowhere near easy. Feeding seven mouths is difficult under any circumstances. I have been grocery shopping with her and she, like most of the township, can’t afford fruits and veggies.

Being in this situation, of course, it is my natural instinct to want to give both hungry patients and barely getting by caregivers money straight from my pocket. However, it is not my role or really proper to do that. Giving them such direct charity would insinuate a type of pity, of which I have none. I could never pity anyone who shows such incredible strength and kindness to all they encounter. Giving money out like that would also be sending an improper message about whites, westerners, and the organizations I represent, as well as make Paulo Freire get sick with disgust. Instead, I follow their inspiring example, and do my best to give this kind of intangible support. I smile, I laugh, and I try and engage. The thing is though, it works. Not just for them either, but also for myself. Once I’m laughing with Zoleka and the patients, I realize, I don’t feel a speck of homesickness. For, after all, they are supporting me right back.

1 comment:

  1. Love it Lizzie!! I'm living vicariously through you!