Footsteps in Hope seeks to aid world's HIV/AIDS victims


By Kevin Slark
Guest Columnist

Imagine a 33-year old mother of three children. She is a vibrant person with a great sense of humor and a role model to her family. Despite being a single mother, she ensures her kids have the best life they can, making certain that they have enough to eat and a good education.

In America, Maria represents the many strong women who refuse to give up on their families despite the odds against them. Now picture Maria as an HIV positive mother, who still fights to take care of her family, despite having full-blown AIDS. Maria was from Old Mutare, Zimbabwe, a country with a lacking public health system and a poor economy. Now she’s a hero for what she does, an unbelievable human being living in an unbelievably difficult situation.

The story of Maria is told by Liz Coleclough, the coordinator of Footsteps in Hope, an organization that raises HIV/AIDS awareness and that supports public health initiatives. Liz spent a year doing community health work in Old Mutare and witnessing the destructive nature of the epidemic. She has since endeavored to bring awareness to this issue as a global crisis – one that is a serious health emergency not only in Zimbabwe, but also right here at home.

From this work sprung Footsteps in Hope, a student driven 8K walk/run that encourages communities both to reach out in support of areas that are crumbling under HIV and to turn around to face the problem that exists in their own back yard.

Bringing our attention back to Zimbabwe, the national government has recognized the serious HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country. If an individual has a T-cell count below 200, they are eligible for anti-retroviral drugs. Once a patient has overcome the stigma of being HIV positive and had decided to seek help (an enormous battle itself), the real challenge of getting on the necessary prescription begins. A person first has to go to a hospital that specifically accommodates registration for anti-retroviral treatment (ART). Because the rural hospital in Old Mutare lacks the needed facilities for ART registration, Maria needed to go to the provincial hospital in the town of Mutare – about 20 kilometers away.

The first obstacle is simply traveling that 20K, an especially difficult task for a sick person without a car. Once there, a person then must wait in line for a hospital stamp. This seems easy enough, except that the waiting room is the size of a stadium and lined with benches that are full by 7 a.m. A four or five hour wait for the stamp is normal.

After that, a person has to wait in yet another line to see a nurse. This usually means another four or five hours in line, surrounded by other sick patients. Often the process takes days and requires the people that completely abandon their daily lives in order to get comprehensive medical care. Coleclough went to the hospital on a daily basis as Maria’s proxy, lobbying with hospital staff to acquire her needed medication.

Liz describes an extremely exhausting experience as a healthy person and cannot imagine what its like for someone who is truly sick. Can you?

Slark graduated from Millsaps College in December with a B.A. in English.