Neglected No More

Sr. Mary Dillon
December 21, 2008

Faced with the HIV-AIDS pandemic in Myanmar, a Columban Sister and her assistant do their part to comfort and care for the afflicted.

When I first went to Myitkyina, Myanmar, in 2002, I was overwhelmed by the great need of the people for decent health care. Those suffering from HIV-AIDS, it seemed, were among the most-neglected people. What could I, as a missionary and a nurse, do to help?

I started with intensive HIV-AIDS courses in London, working with homeless HIV-AIDS people in Dublin, Ireland, and, upon my return to Myanmar, attending seminars about the disease.

A plan emerged: I would help set up a home-care team to visit people in their homes, offer them simple treatments and, not least important, help them regain their self-respect and dignity by showing them friendship and care.

Lucia, a Kachin woman who had wide experience in health care in Myitkyina, became my co-worker. We contacted catechists and Catholic women’s groups in different parishes. People quickly got to know us and our ministry.

A big difficulty was connecting with hospitals; we had first-hand experience of the rejection of patients with HIV-AIDS.

We approached the Médicines Sans Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders) organization in the Yuzana Quarter area of Myitkyina, and its members proved willing to help, offering a holistic approach to the people. We have formed strong bonds with the staff there.

To get started, we first had to draw up a budget. Thanks to the generosity of our benefactors, we were able to purchase an old car, some equipment and basic medicine, and off we went.

A Frightening Reality

A young HIV-AIDS sufferer talked with Sr. Mary Dillon and Lucia (right) during their weekly visit. About 330,000 Burmese people, about 1.2 percent of Myanmar’s population, are infected with HIV-AIDS. Women in particular are at high risk.

A young HIV-AIDS sufferer talked with Sr. Mary Dillon and Lucia (right) during their weekly visit. About 330,000 Burmese people, about 1.2 percent of Myanmar’s population, are infected with HIV-AIDS. Women in particular are at high risk.

People ask me if there is much HIV-AIDS in Myanmar. According to the National Health Plan of Myanmar, HIV-AIDS is ranked third among 39 listed diseases. The virus is spreading through the general population at shocking rates: about 330,000 Burmese people (about 1.2 percent of the population) have HIV-AIDS, including about 97,000 women from ages 15-49 and about 7,600 children, according to U.S. Agency for International Development statistics.

Women who are sex workers and/or inject drugs are at the highest risk, according to the agency.

Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say that in every village at least one person has the virus. Last year the United Nations warned of the imminent threat of HIV-AIDS to Southeast Asia, which includes Myanmar. It’s a frightening reality, and our work is but a drop in the ocean.

Lucia and I quickly realized that most HIV-AIDS sufferers had no form of health care and did not know about services offered by NGO groups. We saw, too, that with good food, supervision and support, the quality of the lives of HIV-AIDS patients could be enhanced.

Opportunistic diseases associated with the virus could be treated, and this would also ease the patients’ suffering. We had medicines for tuberculosis, thrush, shingles, skin conditions, diarrhea, etc.

It was important to teach a patient’s relatives how best to look after their sick loved one by providing good hygiene, nourishing food, pain relievers and other comforts. But, above all, we taught them to treat their sick relatives with kindness and respect.

I found during my involvement in the home-care program that our efforts made a significant difference, not only to the life of the patient, but to the whole family. No longer rejected, the sufferer begins to play an active role in his or her treatment.

A Life Of Violence & Rejection
Ba Nu was only 19 when she died from AIDS. A gentle, intelligent girl, with the sweetest smile imaginable, she bore her sufferings with patience and serenity. But how, I asked myself, did she come to such a sad end?

Her grandmother told us a story of violence and rejection. Her beloved daughter, Ba Nu’s mother, died unexpectedly when the child was 2 years old. She took the child in, and Ba Nu was brought up to respect people—to be truthful and honest.

It was a poor but happy existence, which came to an end when her grandmother could no longer afford to pay for rice to feed her. In her early teens, she was sent to an aunt in Mandalay.

This woman had a tearoom and treated her niece as unpaid labor, keeping her out of the family circle. The sensitive girl felt the bitterness of this rejection and ran away. Soon after, she contracted HIV-AIDS.

Ba Nu’s disease was advanced when I met her. We put her in touch with an international group working against the spread of HIV-AIDS, and its staff did much to improve her quality of life.

Every day, Lucia and I went to visit Ba Nu. We always came away marveling at her graciousness, even though the disease had ravaged her frail body.

One day she took our hands in hers and said, “You are the only life I have now, and I can never thank you enough for your friendship.”

I was deeply moved and not a little humbled. Her gratitude embraced us until the day she died.

She wanted to know what a “Sister” was and what it meant. Lucia, a married woman, told her of our way of life.

She then wanted to pray, but how? Lucia told her, “Just say in your heart, ‘God, I love you,’ and He will show you.” And He did.

As Ba Nu’s life drew to a close, her grandmother finally got her father to come see her. He sat outside the house for four days, never went in, never laid his eyes on his dying daughter, never spoke to anyone.

When Ba Nu died, her father gave the grandmother the price of the coffin and went away. Rejected in death as in life, Ba Nu is but one of thousands who die of AIDS in Myanmar.

Pray that we may be able to help these forgotten, unwanted people not only with medicine but with friendship and compassion.

By Sr. Mary Dillon