Elim missionary Jane Bradshaw is a paediatric nurse who has found herself in the trenches of the heart-wrenching battle being fought day by day against the devastation that HIV/AIDS is wreaking in Africa. This is her story…
Jane Bradshaw is one of the unsung heroes in a conflict that isn’t grabbing the headlines it deserves. Every day, Jane wages war on the havoc that the untreatable scourge of this generation plays with the lives of ordinary people in Swaziland: mothers, daughters, brothers.
Breadwinners and homemakers, professionals and poverty stricken farmers, AIDS is a disease that recognises no social constraint and leaves a trail of destruction in its wake.
No population has been more ravaged by this modern day scourge than Swaziland.
“Swaziland has the highest percentage of people living with HIV of anywhere in the world in terms of their population size,” Jane confirms. “Forty-two per cent of the population are infected with HIV. The population is only about one million. We see a lot of people who are infected, and then progress to AIDS.”
That those figures are scarcely credible says something about the relative security we enjoy in the West, where AIDS is viewed as a stigmatised malady more appropriately mentioned in adverts requesting donations than elsewhere. In Swaziland, though, AIDS has gone from being an issue of private healthcare to a cultural phenomenon which has brought the country to its knees.
“A lot of people reading Direction don’t know anybody infected with HIV,” Jane explains. “As a result, it’s hard to understand the complete hopelessness that people feel when they find out they’re HIV positive.
“We work with a lot of people through our home-based care teams, who are suffering with HIV. Many of them have it because of polygamy or because their husbands are unfaithful or because they’ve been raped, or from their mothers. For no fault of their own, they have a disease that doesn’t have a cure which will end up in an illness that is extremely painful. For a lot of the women, it’s the sense of fear that is most difficult. ‘Am I going to live long enough to see my children grow up to take care of themselves?’
“We encounter a lot of situations where both parents have died, the children are living in a home and the relatives have come and kicked the children out of the home. There’s a lot of fear. ‘Who’s going to pay for my children’s education? For clothing? For food? What will happen to them when I die?’ For the breadwinners of the family, when they find out, it’s a case of ‘What happens when I’m bedridden?’ For mothers, if your child dies, the family can actually blame you, turn on you and accuse you of witchcraft.”
HIV/AIDS is an incurable affliction presently, and it operates in a rather unusual manner. When you’re first infected, there are no symptoms whatsoever – to the point that many people don’t even really notice. At this point, you are HIV positive but don’t yet have AIDS.
“The virus grows and destroys your immune system,” Jane explains. “After a couple of years, you’ll start to notice that whenever you get a cold, it’s a severe cold and it takes a long time to go away.
“You can get skin rashes, you’ll get shingles and you’re more prone to TB. Then, as your immune system is slowly destroyed, you’re more open to cancers and severe forms of disease like meningitis. You lose a lot of weight – so much weight that you can’t actually carry on being active. If you were working, you can no longer work and you spend a lot of time in bed. Then you become bedridden and you slowly die.”
Death, then, is a daily reality for Jane and her team, as they offer care to some of the neediest people in the world. Though there’s the practical element of providing access to antiretroviral drugs that can stem the progress of the virus through the system of the victim and the access to stronger painkillers than the hospital’s paltry offer of paracetamol to those suffering, hope is what the team really offer.
“Having a regular presence in your home offering hope, peace and joy can make an incredible difference,” Jane adds. “One of our team members was saying, ‘Every week I’m going to a funeral. I just feel like everybody in my community is mourning.’ This disease is not just a family thing, it’s a community thing. There are so many people dying. And in Swaziland the funerals last all night.
“People are working all week, going to funerals, staying up all night and burying people very early in the morning, so there’s a lot of tiredness, bereavement and grief in these communities. It weighs heavily on people. To see your neighbours and your family dying – it’s soul-destroying. The hospitals are struggling to cope and the professional class – doctors, teachers and so on – are dying too.”
For Jane, though, this heavy weight of darkness enveloping the country provides the perfect opportunity to shine the light of the gospel. Practically, she and her team train local people to offer care to people suffering in their own communities. They also run mobile clinics to offer HIV testing and specialised support. Those in need of antiretroviral drugs have to be referred to government clinics, though, which are often inefficient and far removed.
“Most people cannot afford the transport fees to get to the government clinic and they are too weak to walk. At some locations, our patients walk for two-and-a-half hours to see us,” Jane says, before explaining the limitations of the drugs provided.
“If you take antiretroviral treatment, these tablets don’t cure the disease. There is no cure for HIV. It just stops the virus from growing in your body, which gives your immune system a chance to grow strong again. Some people will start taking these drugs at the AIDS stage and they’ll slowly get better again.
What we find, though, is that when people start to get better, they stop taking the tablets because of the side effects. A lot of people are dying because they’re not taking the medication properly.”
Beyond the practical help of drugs, bathing, cooking for and giving advice to people in their most vulnerable moments, though, Jane is convinced that it is the gospel that can transform the situation in Swaziland. “There are lots of people living positively with HIV,” she explains.
“Most of our health workers are actually HIV positive, but they’ve turned their nightmare into something good. It’s about knowing Jesus – knowing that he has a plan and a purpose for their lives. When you know that God has ordained your days, it’s immaterial whether you’re HIV positive or not.
“There was one lady who became one of our health workers and was infected by her husband. In the initial stages there was shock and bitterness, but then she overcame that. She said to herself, ‘I can take one of two routes. I can either feel sorry for myself, or I can stand up and transform my community.’ She trained to be a health worker and she’s doing an amazing job bringing hope back into the community through prayer, preaching the gospel and loving people.”
World AIDS day on December 1 gives us the chance to remember a global epidemic that brings despair and devastation to the lives of everyone within its reach, and Jane has clear advice for anyone that wants to make a difference.
“Pray, give and go!” she exclaims. “Go and see it for yourself. Do research so that you can pray more informed prayers. Even in your local area, find hospices that deal with terminally ill people and go and volunteer. Go and pray.”