Sight for the Blind
We drove through Girthurai, then Kawaha and into Soweto until we couldn’t drive any further. We parked the car, asked some trusted shop workers to keep a watch on it, and headed off on foot towards David’s house. We were with Justus, the Githurai center spiritual counselor, and Geoffrey, the male champion. Along the way, a lady named Wanjiku joined us. We later learned that she lives nearby and is responsible for looking after the housing around where David lives. We passed a row of pigsties and the smell was so overwhelming I had to hold my breath. A flowing stream of rainwater and sewage flowed along the roadside where we walked. We made it to the entrance of a row of one-room tin homes, ducked under the wooden doorframe, and weaved back and forth dodging hanging laundry as we made it to the last room furthest down the alleyway.
David welcomed us inside with a smile and a handshake; not meeting our gaze directly but looking slightly off to the side when we greeted him. You could tell he was listening intently to our voices. We sat down on the furniture around the room: a sagging mattress, one chair, a makeshift couch made of a wooden board, foam and a cloth, and an upside bucket that served as a stool. There were 7 of us in total.
We introduced ourselves and David made a joke about being able to tell that Aaron and I were “light brown people”. We all laughed. As I stretched my feet out on the dirt floor, I asked David if he would be willing to share his story with us. Often, when I ask this question, I get a few sentences in reply and even after asking follow up questions often leave knowing only little bits and pieces about their life. David surprised us with his openness, and started telling us in great detail all that he’s been through in the last few years. I barely asked any questions, but just sat and intently listened as he told us his story.
When David came to the CARE for AIDS program in January he was completely blind. His morale was low and as a result his health was waning rapidly. He’s 47 years old. He barely weighed 100 pounds. In addition to his sight loss and overall declining health, he was experiencing kidney failure. David has known his HIV+ status since 2012. His family has long since abandoned him. With no one to take care of him and without being able to see, his stress level was high because he knew he was in poor condition but felt hopeless to be able to do anything about it. This wasn’t the first time David had felt this way in the last few years, but this time, CARE for AIDS was there to intervene.
Back in 2013, election-related violence was rampant. Tension was especially high in the slum regions where armed criminal gangs were fighting. David remembers it as a time of chaos and war in the slum where he lives. Thievery was common and David was the victim of a gang that wanted to steal from him. They severely beat him, hitting him hard over the head and damaging his legs so they could take what they wanted and he couldn’t come after them. After about a year of healing and hospital visits, David thought he had finally made a full recovery from the beating. For 20 years, he had worked slaughtering chickens for different individuals and farms. After he recovered, he went back to doing this work again in 2014.
Unfortunately the worst was still yet to come for David. One day, on the way to work, his eyes started watering profusely. He had to leave work that day because he couldn’t see from his eyes watering so badly. Shortly after that, his eyes started swelling and his vision quickly got worse. He kept working until one day everything went completely black while he was on the job. David had become totally blind.
David spent the next two years at home unable to work, unable to pay rent, and unable to buy food. His friends would occasionally show up at his house and buy him food for the week, but he didn’t like being a burden on others. He decided it would be best it he died. Twice David made an attempt to take his own life and twice God intervened so that he didn’t go through with it. During the first attempt David had found a mosquito net to tie around his neck and hang himself from the ceiling banister in his home. He knelt down to pray one final time just before hanging himself and said to God, “I want to come home. I’m about to show up there, so please don’t be mad at me…”
While he was praying a friend knocked on his door. They had come buy to take him shopping for food and gave him additional money to pay rent.
Unfortunately, because of his inability to work, David had fallen very behind on his rent. At one point his landlord tried to drive him out by taking his door so he would have no privacy or security. David had nowhere else to go, so he hung a blanket as a door and soon, deep in depression about his state, devised another way to take his life. He planned to swallow termite poison before bed so he would die in his sleep.
Not long after making this new plan, his friends found him a new place to live, bought him food and paid for his first few months rent in his new home. Because of this intervention, David decided he wanted to keep on living.
Shortly after moving, David’s friends took him to the hospital for the first time in 2 years. It was 2016 and this was the first time he had been examined by a doctor since becoming completely blind. The doctor came back to him with grave news. He said neither of David’s eyes would likely see again and that he wasn’t a candidate for surgery. David became frustrated, angry, hopeless and suicidal yet again.
A graduate of the CARE for AIDS program lived nearby and knew of David’s situation. She took Rose, the health counselor at the center in Githurai, to meet him. Rose recruited David into the CARE for AIDS program and quickly realized that he needed medical attention. His face was swollen; he was incontinent and malnourished. Using the funds from the Medical Endowment Fund, Rose arranged for Geoffrey, the male champion, to accompany David to the hospital.
The doctor had to drain the fluids from David’s head and face to reduce the swelling. He prescribed medicine to treat the kidney failure. He began treatment for David’s eyes. After doing a chest x-ray, he also prescribed medicine for pneumonia. Blood work was drawn and David’s viral load was over 2 million copies. It became clear that David had defaulted on his medication; his strain of HIV was now resistant to the ARVs he had been taking. The doctor prescribed a new regimen of ARV medication for David to begin taking immediately.
Thankfully, after being on treatment for over 2 months now, David is seeing great improvement. His weight is up to 135 pounds and he has regained control of his bladder. His stress has decreased and it is likely that his viral load has decreased, though it has yet to be tested again. Wanjiku, a neighbor who often helps to take care of David, makes sure that the food he gets from CARE for AIDS is prepared for him and she ensures that he takes his medicine daily.
David’s greatest improvement, though, has been in his eyesight. While he still cannot see well, his left eye is seeing shapes, figures and colors. His right eye has difficulty in the light, but can also see better than before when he is indoors. He will be returning to the doctor again soon to have his viral load tested. With his new ARV medication taking effect, his overall immunity will improve. This will allow his doctor to focus more closely on a plan for continued eye treatment.
David told us that he is no longer weak. He has more strength than he’s experienced in a long time. He boasted that he is now able to walk all the way to the market without anyone even holding his hand. Wanjiku, his neighbor, says that he has improved greatly and is doing really well now. David admits that he still has challenges because he can’t work and has to be given everything he needs, but he’s happy that he is making progress and has new hope.
David attended his first seminar at Githurai center this month on ARV medication adherence and HIV prevention. He sat up front so that he could see the instructor and told us in detail all the practical information he learned that day.
“I’m very happy right now. Through CFA, I am seeing a lot of change for the first time in many years.”
Instead of saying goodbye to us at the door, David walked with us back to where our car was parked. Before leaving, we shook hands, gave hugs, told him how much we appreciated learning about his story, and that we looked forward to seeing him again soon.
Aaron and I spend a lot of time in various slums visiting the CARE for AIDS centers and client homes. It’s often hard to even begin to process everything we see, hear, learn, smell and think. It can be overwhelming at times and often I don’t know how to respond or what to do with all of it. During the middle of our visit with David was one of those overwhelming moments for me: visually and emotionally. Hearing this story of suffering, pain, and depression was hard. But I didn’t leave David’s house sad or feeling sorry for him or upset or angry at what he’s had to go through in life. Why? Because throughout our entire time there, I could tell that David was grateful for his life and that he had hope for tomorrow. I could see it in his eyes, in his smile, in his body language and in how he told us his story. I wrote his story chronologically for the sake of this blog post, but that’s not how he told it to us. He gave us the best parts first and told us the back-story later. So the tears I held back and finally shed when we got back home weren’t because I had been overwhelmed by sadness but because I was overwhelmed by how much I have to be grateful for every single day.