Diary of…a student who helped children living with HIV in Peru

Belina Collias is a second-year student in the Osteopathic Medicine program (OMS-II). She is originally from Burlington, Vt., a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Lesotho, Africa and founder of the non-profit organization The MOSA Project. She is currently president of NSU-COM’s International Medical Outreach Club. Her interests include international travel and volunteerism, social justice, human rights activism and public health.

This past December, I had an eye-opening experience as a participant of the NSU-COM’s medical outreach trip to Peru.  As medical students in the United States, we have been taught about HIV/AIDS with much emphasis on the specialized care and sensitivity that these patients require.  While many of us were aware that disparities exist across the globe in regards to the HIV pandemic, the attitude we encountered in Peru towards the disease was shocking.

When we arrived to volunteer at the local clinic, which serves an impoverished region in the northwest of the country, we met friendly health care workers who were eager to get to know us, and asked what kind of doctors we wanted to be; but when I mentioned that my goal was to specialize in HIV care, their demeanor instantly changed.  They insisted that disease was not at all common in their country.  It was something that was greatly feared and rarely discussed.

Later that day, one of the nurses pulled me aside privately and told me that she knew of an orphanage not far from our work site, where children with AIDS had been quarantined by the government and, in essence, sent to die.  If I wanted to visit, she said, she would take me, but it would have to be kept a secret because she could potentially lose her job for associating with that place.  Her description sent chills down my spine, but I went to the orphanage the following morning with one of our physician preceptors and another classmate.

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the conditions were not nearly as dismal as we had been told. On the contrary, we were warmly greeted by Carmen Minga, a nurse who lives full time with 11 HIV-positive orphans and has devoted her entire life to maintaining a safe, loving home called Asociación Por La Vida to keep them alive and healthy.  In addition, she and a few helpers provide outreach and aid to more than 50 families affected by HIV in the surrounding communities with the meager resources they obtain through donations.

The attitude we first encountered at the clinic, however, was an accurate representation of how most Peruvians, including the government, feel about HIV/AIDS.  The stigma and discrimination bred from fear, Carmen told us, was what constantly hindered her from serving the local HIV community and the 11 children in her care to the best of her ability.  Although the government does provide basic anti-retroviral treatment, other forms of assistance are extremely limited and especially difficult for the poor to access.  With tears in her eyes, Carmen told us of an incident in which doctors from the community hospital turned her away in the middle of the night when she went to seek emergent care for one of the kids, because people with HIV are not allowed to be near the other patients.

“We have to do it all on our own,” she said with despair.  “This house becomes their hospital when they get sick, so I do whatever I can to keep basic supplies and medicine on the shelf with the little I receive in donations. Sometimes this comes at the expense of the children’s daily meals.”

We spent the entire day at the orphanage playing with the kids and giving each of them a thorough physical exam.  As we said our goodbyes at the door, 5-year-old Meily grabbed my hand and asked if I could come back to play with her tomorrow.  As her hopeful eyes gazed up at me, I turned and looked into Carmen’s, which were silently asking a different question…is there anything you can do to help them?

Asociación Por La Vida is a small, grass-roots organization that operates purely on donations and tries against all odds to provide what we consider to be the standard care to young HIV-patients in a society that has severely marginalized them.  The NSU-COM medical outreach team that volunteered in Peru greatly supports their mission and will be establishing a sponsorship program by which you can “adopt” an orphan living with the HIV virus and help support them through a one-time or continuous contribution. You can contact me at blaidley@gmail.com or call 802-343-6169 for more information.

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