A HIV Counselor Battles Her Own Illness

A HIV Counselor Battles Her Own Illness

Discovering MSH blog series graphicOver the next couple of months, as MSH celebrates it's 40th anniversary, reporter John Donnelly and photographer Dominic Chavez will be traveling to several countries to report on MSH’s work in the field. The stories will go into a book due out in the fall on MSH’s 40 years in global health. This blog entry is a post from the road, to give a flavor of their experiences with MSH staff.

Lucy Sakala at the Salima District Hospital in Salima, Malawi (© Dominic Chavez)


SALIMA, Malawi – For three years, Lucy Sakala has helped counsel people seeking HIV tests at the Salima District Hospital. As part of MSH’s effort to support the government’s health system, it employs Sakala and other counselors in the USAID-funded project. Sakala, 28, who is married and the mother of an eight-year-old girl, loves her job, but her last year has been very trying. She is ill with cancer, which has spread from her uterus to her brain, esophagus, and lungs. She had a brain operation several months ago, and needs to complete chemotherapy treatment, although for now she can’t afford it. “I do feel some pain due to the operation, and sometimes in my lungs,” she said one morning last week in a small office at the hospital. Outside, a half-dozen people had gathered to be tested for HIV. “But I’m really glad to have this job. I really enjoy it.” A few times, she said, she has told people in the counseling sessions about her illness. It has come up with those who test positive for HIV. “I tell people who just learn their diagnosis that they should live positively,” Sakala said. “I tell them that there are several conditions more serious than HIV, including some cancers. And I tell them I have cancer, and it’s difficult, but that I live positively. Then I say it’s so important for them to take their medications properly so they won’t have opportunistic infections, and that they shouldn’t fear much. They should listen to their health provider.” Those patients, Sakala said, sometimes “feel sorry for me, and their problem becomes a little lighter. But I tell them not to feel sorry. I tell them to live as positively as I am.” Even as she said this, though, she was still thinking of the seven-hour round-trip the day before to Blantyre to see her doctor. He told her that he had no more chemotherapy on hand and she must buy it in a pharmacy. The cost was 28,000 kwatcha, or roughly $180, of which insurance would pay half. Still, she didn’t have the 14,000 Kwatcha, or $90. Her salary is 13,000 kwatcha a month, or roughly $85. Complicating matters, MSH’s project is closing soon, and funding for Sakala’s job runs out at the end of June. “It’s a problem,” said Kuzemba Mulenga, district coordinator for MSH in Sikoma. “We are all concerned for Lucy.” Her doctor has advised her to go to Zambia to receive radiation therapy, but Sakala doesn’t have the funding for that, either. “When I’ve been taking the medication, I feel a lot better,” she said. “I am encouraged. I just hope to continue my treatment.”

** For more information on Sakala, including an effort to fund her treatment, contact MSH’s Malawi country director Rudi Thetard at rthetard@mw.msh.org.

John Donnelly is a journalist based in Washington, D.C., specializing in global health and environmental subjects. From 1999 to early 2008, he was a reporter with The Boston Globe. He worked for five years in the Washington bureau of The Globe, covering foreign policy, with a special focus on global health issues. From 2003 to mid-2006, he opened and ran the Globe’s first-ever Africa bureau. Based in South Africa, he traveled widely around the continent, focusing on a wide range of health issues.