‘My life is to care for positive lives’

2010-10-10 15:50

Irene Montwedi thought things couldn’t get any worse when she

tested HIV positive five years ago.

She already had ­diabetes and regularly lurched from illness to

health. But for the unemployed woman from Phokeng near Rustenburg, life did get


She was diagnosed with multi-drug resistant (MDR) ­tuberculosis – one of

the most ­virulent strains of the infection – and had to be hospitalised for

eight months.

Montwedi is unmarried with no children and was terrified that she

would somehow be “judged” by people when they found out. But she found solace

and support among fellow churchgoers at the local Catholic church.

It was at church that Montwedi – herself on a strict regimen of­

anti-Aids and TB suppression drugs – found out about a home-based care programme

for people living with HIV and those dying from Aids.

A self-described “carer” by ­nature, Montwedi has since 2005 been

working with the ­programme; offering counselling, ­patient care and medication

­management to hundreds of ­people across Phokeng.

The desperate circumstances of many of her patients move Montwedi

to tears. She relates the story of one of the first patients she visited in

Freedom Park, a Rustenburg squatter camp.

The woman was epileptic and lived alone. Montwedi often found her

collapsed in her shack after a fit. Although she ­displayed all the symptoms,

she ­refused to be tested for HIV, like many others.

Montwedi says: “They don’t want to disclose because they would be

judged or rejected.”

Montwedi’s ordinarily shy, ­soft-spoken demeanour changes as she

walks the streets of Phokeng in her neat navy and white uniform, ­visiting


She has devoted her life to caring for others, but takes time out

in the parish.

When she feels down, Montwedi says she finds inspiration in the

­Bible and in making a difference in the lives of her ­patients. She admits it

isn’t always easy, though.

“Many of these people are ­neglected. What they need most is love

and support up to the end of their lives,” says Montwedi.

She follows a strict protocol ­during home visits: although she

jokes and socialises with the ­patients, she’s here to check one thing – that

they are taking their medication.

The first thing she does on ­entering a home is to walk around the

yard, inspecting the condition of the house.

Once this is done, she sits down with the patient to discuss how

their health has been since her last visit.

They then take out the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

Montwedi and the

patient pour the big tablets onto a plate and count them out together. This, she

says, is done to be sure the patient is taking the drugs correctly and on


One of the biggest challenges facing HIV healthcare workers, like

Montwedi, is the use of traditional medicines with the ARVs, which she says

dilute their efficacy.

“The thing is most people don’t understand is it’s chronic

medication. You have to be on it for the rest of your life,” Montwedi


Montwedi herself knows just how hard this can be.

The ­side-

­effects from the drugs have been ­serious, but they are tolerable and

eventually wear off, she says.

She suffers from occasional ­dizzy spells, which is the worst side


“If the patients I see every day can take them despite their

­desperate circumstances, I can take them too,” she says.

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