I was thinking of what ode to infectious diseases and health I could write this time around. Instead, I’m going to write about my friend Tina*.
I met Tina one evening while working at the Mulago Hospital site of the Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI). She worked one of the evening cleaning shift. Whenever I saw her during my visits to Mulago we would talk about all kinds of things – how long it took to get to work on a taxi (she traveled at least 1 hour while I walked from home), how her children were faring in secondary school (they were doing very well), and if I enjoyed grasshoppers (I find them surprisingly delicious). One day, while she held my hand as we stood overlooking the hospital grounds on the second-floor balcony of IDI’s building, I asked her how she got started working at IDI. She answered, with no misstep, that it was a natural progression as she was getting treatment at IDI’s HIV clinic down below.
I looked at her in surprise as she continued to describe her day, relaying how all but one of her children were HIV positive, how hard she worked to ensure that her two eldest daughters’ school fees were paid for, and the sort. I thought I knew as much about the HIV epidemic as most public health professionals did – I learned the epidemiology throughout the world, the biology of the virus, the treatment regimens, the health behaviors that predicted transmission. I knew the facts. But I listened to Tina, enthralled by her tenacity and openness and humbled with the fact that she trusted me enough to tell me she was HIV positive. Before her I had never personally known anyone who had HIV.
Sometimes we get so caught up in the different projects, timelines, deadlines, and reports that we forget why we do the work we do. But in meeting Tina I’ve come to realize the true purpose of working in global health and health equity – to connect with others, to share experiences, and to use that new-found knowledge and relationship to create something new, something better. My friendship with Tina has strengthened my resolve to work in public health because the work I do is not just for me, it’s for her as well.
Hmm… now that I think about it it’s been a while since I’ve done work at Mulago, let alone seen her. I think I’ll pay a visit sometime this week.
* Name changed for confidentiality.