Wednesday, 8 March 2017

A tribute to International Women's Day

Two weekends ago, my husband and I stopped at a Mexican restaurant in downtown Barrie on our way up to Hunstville for a weekend of cross country skiing.  It was 12 noon and already 9 degrees Celsius.  We sat at a table just inside the window.  The sun poured in over us.  I was casually watching people pass by on the street. 

There was an older woman who  to cross the street.  She was disabled  and stumbling with a cane.  She had managed to weave her way across two lanes of busy traffic but now she faced the snow bank which was a crusty 3 foot pile of ice and dirt.  There was no way she was going to make it.  I feel ashamed now but it didn’t even dawn on me that she might need help.  Just then, our waitress, a lovely Latin American woman in short sleeves and a bar tenders apron rushed out to the street.   It was a struggle even for her but she climbed the bank, grabbed the woman’s arm and her cane and gently guided her over the bank.

No big deal right?   We are women.  We are wired to help those in need and care for the most vulnerable right?  This is just a typical example of an act of kindness, right?

But I was a mess.  I was overcome with emotion:  A knot in my throat, tears welling up in my eyes, sniffling over my Dos Equis beer.   Well isn’t this embarrassing. 

I looked over to a young man, maybe in his early twenties sitting at the table beside us.  He saw this ‘routine’ act of kindness and his eyes were welling up too.   Well, that just made me cry even more.  When did our world shift so far away from caring for our fellow man ( or woman) that what was once a common and expected act of compassion and dignity is now so rare that it makes us grieve?

I am an AIDS activist and a family doctor.  In the last 10 years, I have taken on the responsibility of leading an energetic charge that wants to see the end of AIDS not only in our country but in the tiny African Kingdom of Lesotho, Africa. 

In 1987, HIV was crushing populations in North America.  As a 22 year old, newly married medical student, I was working with the infectious disease team at Dalhousie University in Halifax.  I was actually standing in the room when the first patient in the country was given the first dose of AZT, a new ante-viral medication that showed so much promise and brought so much hope.  But it did not work.

His name was Chris.

  I was raised in Ingersoll and Woodstock Ontario.  My father immigrated to Canada from Holland after WW2.  He worked his way up from the bottom rung at the Royal Bank of Canada to the manager of the Ingersoll and then the Woodstock, downtown branch.   My mother was a home-maker of Italian descent.  Her parents immigrated from Italy just before WW1.  I am the youngest of five and the first of many generations before me to make it to University. 

This country was built by immigrants in the last century.  They are a valuable to us:
a precious addition to our diverse country.

My father taught me to work hard and shoot for the moon.  My mother taught me to love God and my fellow man.  By the time I met Chris, I had never witnessed a person who was the victim of such stigma and fear.  The nursing staff was afraid of entering his room.  His meals were left on a tray in the hallway outside his door.  Housekeeping refused to clean his room.  His family and his partner had left him and here he was, alone and dying.  I was desperate to understand how any human being could be allowed to suffer so much.  I spent hours with Chris.

He inspired me to learn about AIDS. 

Three years later, I opened my family practice in Guelph.  I took on 7 HIV positive patients, all male, all very young and all dying of AIDS.  HIV treating physicians at the time were experts in palliative care.  We scrambled to treat our patients with medications that were not effective.  The disease was unrelenting.  Patient’s died of infections their immune systems could not overcome.  One infection settled into the back of the eye causing rapid blindness.  We would inject patient’s eyes with an anti-viral in a desperate attempt to preserve their vision.  It was hell.

Then in 1996, a brilliant Canadian researcher came up with a cocktail of medications:  three HIV medications taken by the handfuls, three times a day.  The regimen was grueling and toxic but I will never forget the day when hope hit. Hand that cocktail to a dying patient and within weeks he was restored to almost normal health.  The weary patients and their doctors were elated.  We called it, The Lazarus effect.

In 2000, all of the other HIV treating physicians in this South Western Ontario retired or moved.   They cared for sixty HIV positive patients.  I was not equipped to care for more.   I sat beside a colleague of mine at a conference.  He was the director of the provincial HIV/AIDS clinic in Windsor.  He was determined to convince me to build an AIDS clinic in Guelph.  I dismissed him.  Who has time for that.  Several weeks later, I received an invitation to attend the HIV/AIDS clinic directors Meeting at Queens park.  Truthfully, I wasn’t sure where Queen’s park was.    I attended the meeting thinking it might be good to learn how things run in the province.  I would observe as a fly on the wall….so to speak. 

I sat beside my colleague around this big, beautiful oak table.  I was more interested in the d├ęcor than the government dignitaries and directors around the table.  I looked down and saw my name,  first on the agenda.  The next two hours were spent discussing how the group was going to assist me in building the province’s 14th HIV/AIDS clinic.  I kicked my friend under the table.  There was absolutely no way I was going to do this.  On the drive home, I was indignant but I felt a very strong presence.  I believe it was God, and my mother who had passed away a couple of years before.  How could I turn them down.

Lovely and long story short, 15 months later, we opened the province’s 14th HIV/AIDS clinic in Guelph with a team of amazing people who showed up to the first meeting I called.  It was a miraculous community effort with huge support from our local paper.   There is now a satellite clinic in Waterloo.  Both clinics are now called ARCH ( HIV AIDS Resources and Community Health ) and together, the clinics provide care to over 600 HIV positive patients in the region.  Two years ago, we opened the regions first transgender clinic.  More that 100 babies have been born through ARCH to HIV positive mothers, all of them HIV negative and every family thriving. 

The miracle of science and technology will end AIDS.  Human beings are extremely smart, vastly intelligent.  We have the capacity to address all of our global problems.  Any government that dismisses Science should not be governing.

In 2007, that complicated HIV drug regimen of handfuls of pills three times daily that was toxic and often deadly was replaced with Atripla:  three combined medications in one pill given once a day.

By 2012, research showed that if you treat an HIV positive person and reduce their viral load to undetectable levels, they virtually cannot transmit the virus.

In 2013, stats showed the effectively treated HIV positive person can live a normal life expectancy.  Are you hearing this?

By 2016, there are 5 one pill once daily regimens available that are so powerful they will easily keep people alive right until the cure..

In 2017, we believe the cure for HIV is less than 5 years away.  It will come in pill form, not a vaccine.  The WHO has set new targets, the 90:90:90 treatment targets to the end of AIDS by 2030:  90% diagnosed, 90 % treated, 90% with an undetectable Viral Load.

When you have successfully captured the energy and effort of a community behind a great cause, keep them inspired.  The world is desperate for inspiration and hope.  Shortly after opening the clinic in Guelph, I listened to Stephen Lewis speak.  At the time, he was the UN Secretary General’s envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa….and he was broken.  I sat there shocked.  This beautiful and dignified orator and statesman had seen the worst of humanity and he was broken.

It became clear to me, over the next few weeks, after reading his book and many others, that  I needed to respond to the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

Within months, I found myself working with a team of Canadian doctors and nurse practitioners in the first HIV/AIDS clinic in Lesotho, Africa built by the Ontario Hospital Association and within days…… I was broken too.

Building AIDS clinics in Ontario was a piece of cake.  Treating hundreds of dying men, women and children in an African Kingdom where 30 percent of the population is HIV positive and 250,000 children are orphaned by AIDS was the most exhilarating and the most devastating experience of my life. 

Tuesdays were children’s day at this clinic in Lesotho.  It was here, in the summer of 2006 that I met Letosa.  Eighteen months old, both parents dead, sitting on her grandmother’s lap dying of AIDS and a suffocating pneumonia.  She was so little, so frail, motionless, finished.  I had seen this before just before death but never in someone so young.  I held her tiny hand, looked at her sweet, sweet face and watched on as she slipped away…..the victim of an preventable pandemic and a preventable disease.  She never stood a chance.

Lieutenant General Romeo Dellaire is another beautiful and dignified statesman.  He witnessed the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.  He writes extensively about his experiences in his book, “Shake Hands with the Devil”.  He has written most recently about his battle with PTSD in his newest book, “Waiting for first light”.

PTSD is devastating and I don’t think you ever quite get past it.    After my first trip to Lesotho, I curled up in a fetal position and suffered.  You have a couple of options once you’ve witnessed children dying of AIDS:  You can take your crazy, mixed up emotions and shove them someplace deep and safe, or you can rise up and fight back.

I challenged my community to keep up the good fight and help me fight back.

Within two years and a stunning community effort, Guelph raised $1 million for that first HIV/AIDS clinic in Lesotho, keeping 11,000 people alive throughout 2009 and all I had to do was ask them to respond.

Since then, the NGO we started that raised that first million has raised close to $4 million.  We call ourselves Bracelet of Hope and our goal is to end the AIDS pandemic in Lesotho.  Why?  Because we can.  We are in the process of building another HIV clinic in the country.  We could use all the help we can get.  Join us if you can.

When leaders stand up for what is right and good and just, even leaders who may not yet know they are leaders, miracles happen.  When broken people find the courage to fight despite their pain and despite the obstacles, anything is possible, anything can be accomplished. 

I prescribe anti-depressants to teenagers everyday because, in part, their world has gone absolutely mad.  They believe their world is so dark and their futures so bleak that they simply cannot cope.

What is special about us, on the dawn of International Women’s day. is that when
women leaders stand up, families are restored, communities thrive and futures are re-directed.  Just like that beautiful, Latin American Waitress who without a second thought, reached out to her fellow woman, and in so doing moved and inspired those who watched, we can bring hope to hopeless situations and shine many lights in the darkest parts of the world.

Now is the time.  Stand up and lead.  Encourage your community to come along side as you engage in a good and just fight that just might change the world.  At minimum, it will change you and inspire others.  It will give hope; and hope is a priceless and rare commodity that we all desperately need now.

I will end here with a well-worn million dollar campaign quote by Rob Bell from one of my favourite books, ‘Velvet Elvis’.  I left a copy of this book at the clinic in Lesotho the day I left the clinic and in the cover I wrote,

“To the people I have come love, stay strong, be brave and remember;

I am convinced being generous is a better way to live.
I am convinced having compassion is a better way to live.
Fighting against famine, debt, poverty, oppression, despair, slaughter, injustice, loneliness and suffering for all mankind is a better way to live.  Rob Bell"

Anne-Marie Zajdlik MD CCFP O.Ont MSM
Founder of Bracelet of Hope,
ARCH Clinic Guelph and Waterloo and
Hope Health Center

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