Tuesday, December 23, 2008


Apologies, apologies...I know I have written in a very long time. However, I am now....so let's talk about the important things.

This last month has been filled with ups and downs, but mostly downs...and well, confusion...Truth is, I've seen a lot of new things that I've never experienced before and I'm still not exactly sure how to articulate the realities of things I've seen. Before I get existential, here's are some realities:

The 1st of December was marked by World AIDS Day, and so I traveled to San Pedro Sula for the city march of organizations and persons in the fight against HIV/AIDS. It was a very eye-opening experience with a slew of people dressed up in giant condom costumes and other men dressed up in drag. It was quite interesting because our organization, though faith-based and affiliated with the Episcopal Church, has one of the few outreach programs to sex workers, often male transvestites. Although I'm not involved with that project, it was really incredible to see the relationships between my co-workers and our patients who were or still are part of that line of work, shall I say. Maybe it's just part ignorance, part religious background, but I've never really been exposed to that and so it was a really interesting experience for me.

Another, and probably more intense experience this last month, has been dealing with the sickness of a former worker and co-worker of mine. Alba* the clinic's cook and cleaning lady and part-time jewelry-maker, fell very ill with a skin rash and had been in and out of the hospital for the last couple months. Well, in the last two weeks, she decided to just go home because she was tired of being in the hospital and no one being able to diagnose what she had or how to treat it. Because HIV attacks the immune system, any other illness--skin disease, cancer, tuberculosis, the flu!--can cause them to get really really sick and potentially die.

While at home these last 2 weeks, Alba has only been getting worse. One day I took my workers to go see her and spend some time with her. Now that I look back, that may not have been a good decision. When we arrived at her house, she was lying in her bed, not really able to talk. She understood what was going on, but was not able to respond. Her dark skin was very flaky and white-ish, with blood and raw flesh exposed at the joints. Her hair had started to fall out of her scalp. Lying there, she came in and out of consciousness, eyes rolling back at times, but then other times, completely alert. It was one of the most emotionally stinging experiences of my life. Seeing someone you know so well, in a healthy state, fall so ill and not even resemble herself. I hate to use the word horrifying, but it was that way for me. It was horrifying for me to watch someone suffering so much. What was happening to her skin on the outside was happening to the tissues inside her body, and that kind of pain I just couldn't fathom even though I was watching it. Many of my workers couldn't stop crying...after all, seeing a friend like that not only makes them sad, but is another reminder of their own situations and vulnerability as persons living with HIV as well. It was a very difficult moment for everyone, but out of the few words Alba could mutter, she told us not to cry...but that just made some cry even more. And can you imagine how Alba must feel? Watching person after person see her suffering so much and crying for her...I can't imagine the depression and emotional pain that must bring her in addition to the physical.

I went back a few times after that day, but after 2-3 times of watching her be responsive for a few minutes and then gasping for breath others, I just couldn't anymore. The visuals I carried in my mind were too much to handle at night alone in my apartment. And the last time I visited, she was crying out for her family and there I was, standing in the corner of the room as she yelled for her family...she couldn't make out sentences but she was communicating with them. Elizabeth, the nurse, who is like a daughter to Alba called me over to the family and told Alba, "Johanna is here, too." Alba called my name, but looked at me and said, with love I think, "No es mi hija, no es mi familia" (You're not my daughter, you're not my family). While I could have taken that badly, I was so thankful to her. I had felt quite uncomfortable in the corner of the room, although I wanted to be there to show I cared and support them, I knew I didn't belong, I was not family. While I care for her, I just couldn't go back before I left for the States. Maybe it's a selfish reason because of the emotional trauma I'm feeling through seeing her in pain, but now is most importantly a time for her to be with her family and loved ones...I, an American volunteer she's known for all of 6 months is not someone she needs to see during this painful time. It's her children, and parents, and husband, and other relatives that she needs to be with most.

An unexpected event with Alba also made me feel uncomfortable there, and it's opened up my eyes to the reality of the situation. Alba is a Christian and as she has been in this state of sickness, many people have ministered to her and she has told us that she has asked God for forgiveness and given herself to God and committed herself to his will for her, life or death. We have all prayed for her and with her and although some people's prayers have been to give her strength to fight, my thoughts watching her suffer so much, were mostly filled with, whatever You will Lord, give her peace so she doesn't have to suffer like this. The next day, she was still alive and the nurse told me that the previous night after I left, a witchdoctor came and said that there is someone putting a curse on Alba and that's why she's suffering so much. If they paid 7,000 lempira (~US$350) she would have the curse taken off and Alba would get better within 3 days. While this might seem like non-sense or radical, witchcraft is very present among the culture in Central America...mostly in Mexico and Guatemala, but migrant witchdoctors have brought the traditions to Honduras. So while I sit there hearing this and just thinking, how ridiculous this is, Alba's family (and Alba) have declared that they are going to pay and take her to the witchdoctor. This has brought a whole new world of unknown to my life. Never have I seen what I guess you could call "spiritual warfare" going on, but this was definitely part of it. And for someone like me, who feels responsible to respect the beliefs of all others, I felt, strangely, hurt. After all the medications and hospitalizations and spiritual support our organization had provided her, after the prayers people had laid upon her, after declaring that she had "entregado su vida a Dios" (turned in her life to God), she and her family were in such desperate conditions that they would do anything to have her not suffer any longer...even if it means turning against her God at the last moment of her life. And the fact that someone would take advantage of her and her family in a situation as difficult and delicate as this...it's all pretty powerful and it surprised and hurt and saddened all of us.

I'm not sure how I've conveyed this experience via webblog, but it has been something I've been struggling with and facing recently, and it's affecting me on so many levels. Maybe it's because it's the first time I'm watching someone die of AIDS. Someone I know. Someone I love. Maybe it's because I'm seeing and learning more and more about the relationship between illness and spirituality. Or maybe it's because I've just never experienced realities such as these...