Eric’s Story

EricIn a field littered with three and more letter acronyms, PLwHIV (People Living with HIV) is my least favourite. It is a cold, cumbersome and clinical way to describe the body and soul of the epidemic. It is their pain and suffering that should command our greatest attention and their strength and determination our greatest inspiration.

I much prefer the term ‘living positively’ which I am glad to say is in widespread use here in Zambia. I can think of no better ambassador for that moniker than my colleague Eric. He has been kind enough to let me share his story here.

Eric grew up in a mixed home with various half brothers and sisters on both sides of his family. By his own account, this lack of parental guidance led Eric to mix in bad company from an early age. By the time he was in his late teens he was competing with other boys for the number of girls he could catch, never thinking to use a condom as in his eyes they were for ‘those who travel’.

One term break, near the end of his boarding school studies, he returned home with a bad rash. After visiting the hospital he was called back for his blood results. Without any form of counselling he was blankly informed that his blood had tested positive for HIV and that he could expect to live for no more than 2-3 years.

Eric cast his eyes around the clinic walls as posters of skeletal images loomed down upon him – depicting what a life with HIV represented at that time. At the tender age of 18, the thought of dying slowly in his bed was simply inconceivable. Instead, he decided to start looking for a more manly way to die, recklessly abusing his body with drugs and alcohol and getting into as many fights as possible.

Word soon got out regarding his status and he was asked to leave the family home for fear of infecting others. He was offered sanctuary by a friend’s mother but couldn’t bring himself to take it and instead found himself seeking anonymity in one of the high density compounds of Ndola. Life was rough and tough in the city and only came to a halt when his mother came searching for him, finally to find him drunk, drugged and in yet one more fight.

She tearfully asked him to come back to the village and stay with an aunt who was also sick. He relented and although life itself became much better, Eric’s symptoms quickly worsened. His skin began to ooze with sores and within two weeks his leg pain was so bad that he couldn’t walk. He was to remain bed ridden for the next six months. This being the early 1990’s, the only remedies on offer were traditional witch craft but Eric was sure that they made his symptoms worse.

During his time in bed, Eric repeatedly prayed to God to take him so that he could stop being a burden to his family. Thankfully those prayers went unanswered and although immobile he retained a good appetite. So much so that one day when all the village had gone to the fields, Eric found himself hungry and alone. Praying for the strength to walk, Eric decided to try and stand on his shaking legs, taking one step and falling, picking himself up, taking another two steps, falling again.

In this gradual and painful way he made it to the cooking hut and it was there that the villagers found him late that evening, collapsed and exhausted from his efforts. “Who brought you here?” asked the villagers in disbelief and it took Eric to repeat the feat in front of their eyes for them to believe he had managed by himself. Within 6 weeks Eric had trained himself to walk again and after 4 years of nursing himself back to health he applied to become an untrained teacher.

Now 7 years living with his infection and still very much alive, Eric figured it was time to pick up his old ambitions and began taking courses and applying for jobs. Life remained challenging: when one boss discovered TB medications in his office drawer he was quietly demoted all the way down to sweeping the dusty streets. The combination of fighting the infection and dust from his new job left him seriously weakened and very ill. When he returned to work he found that his position had been filled. He was even refused treatment at some medical centres because of his status.

Eric spent some time as a pastor in a church in Botswana but was treated coldly upon his return to Zambia and so turned away from the church and to more general psycho-social counselling, particularly for those with HIV.  He became affiliated to the National Association for People living with HIV and developed his own programme of education – travelling around clinics and communities to talk of his experiences.

These were the dark days of the mid 1990’s when the spread of the disease was rampant but where good drugs were almost non-existent, particularly in Africa. Eric remembers many good and strong advocates being overcome by the toxicity of supposed cures such as Selenium and Septrin. Eric survived and rose through the ranks of the HIV positive network groups until his work came to the attention of an American research team. From there he was invited to visit the US to give talks and gain further training.

It was this exposure that led him to his home today, the AIDS Alliance, where he joined the pilot of a ground-breaking programme that utilised the skills and experiences of HIV positive people to counsel and mobilise others to come forward for testing and treatment. That was over 4 years ago and the programme has since grown to employ over 500 HIV positive treatment support workers in Zambia and was the basis for an even larger programme in Uganda.

Today, 20 years after his first diagnosis, Eric is a healthy and integral part of the team I work with. He is famous in his role at the University’s HIV clinic providing counselling, care and support for the many thousands of people who pass through its doors. Happily today much of his work is devoted to helping clients adhere to effective, tolerable medicines that can control their infection.

He and his wife, who is also positive, have four healthy and HIV negative children. His health is so good that he is frequently accused of faking his status just to gain work with NGO’s.

Ask Eric for the secret of his amazing story of survival and he will tell you that “Mindset is the greatest medicine.” Of his work he says, “By coming out of my shell and being there for others, I can achieve more than any State President”

How more positive a life can you lead than that?

2 Responses to “Eric’s Story”
  1. Niall says:

    Inspiring story Berkeley, still enjoying your blog very much.

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  1. […] progress from the almost universal death sentence that the diagnosis represented only 20 years ago (Eric’s story not […]

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