Mashishi (42) had one foot in the grave 11 years ago. She was gravely ill and could not eat or walk without help.
Doctors told her she had full-blown Aids, a diagnosis that meant death at the time. But she refused to succumb to the disease and lived to tell the tale, which started with her cousin carrying her on his back to the wellness centre in Masakhane, an antiretroviral (ARV) site at the Tembisa Municipal Clinic in Ekurhuleni.
“I was so weak ... My mother said I will live and not die and, as difficult as it was to believe, I held on to those words,” she says.
“I started antiretroviral treatment immediately and, in less than three months, I was up and running, although I had not fully recovered,” says Mashishi.
She was one of the first people to start taking ARVs when they were introduced into the public healthcare sector in April 2004. She started treatment in August that year, and life has only improved since then.
Today, she is happily married with children and emphasises that, had she not taken ARVs, she would now be six feet underground.
“I was bedridden and some people were probably preparing for my funeral,” she says.
“Every day, I would think that I will not see the next day. But look at me now – I am living healthily and enjoying life to the full,” she says.
Although Mashishi is happy and positive, she acknowledges that hers has not been an easy journey – but she takes it one day at time. She found out that she was HIV positive in 1993 while pregnant with her first child, who died a few months after being born.
Seven years later, a man she loved dearly died after a long period of illness – a few weeks after he started ARV treatment. This scared Mashishi, causing her to delay starting her treatment until after her HIV infection progressed to full-blown Aids.
“I believed that if I started taking treatment, I would also die. Back then, there was not much information about HIV treatment and there was talk that ARVs were toxic. One did not know what to believe. When I think back today about the support I got from my family, especially my mother and stepfather, tears fill my eyes because, without them, I would not be alive,” she says.
“My stepfather encouraged me to take ARVs, saying that they would keep me alive – and here I am today.”
Mashishi encourages people who test positive for HIV to start treatment as soon as possible.
“I watched so many of my friends and family die – all because they refused treatment. Don’t do the same thing.
“Yes there are some side-effects that come with taking ARVs, but it should not be the reason you are putting your life at risk.
“I am testimony to how ARVs can keep you healthy and make you live longer.”
Tshayana (35) vowed that he would never take ARVs. He believed that eating healthily, exercising regularly and taking herbs was all he needed to stay healthy and alive.
Tshayana, who found out that he was HIV positive in 1999, continued with his own treatment for seven years. During that time, it seemed to be working perfectly for him. His CD4 count fluctuated between 350 and 400 and – except for seasonal illnesses such as influenza – he did not get sick.
Among people with HIV, their CD4 count is the most important laboratory indicator of how well their immune systems are working and the strongest predictor of HIV progression.
In 2005, however, he started drinking heavily and his CD4 count started dropping. Fortunately, he had a friend who was a doctor, who kept begging Tshayana to start ARV treatment.
Tshayana says he was very reluctant to start taking ARVs, despite warnings from the doctor that he was sending himself to an early grave.
“At the time, I worked for an organisation that was against antiretroviral treatment. I strongly believed that ARVs were toxic and I wanted to prove to people that living healthily and taking herbs could keep Aids at bay,” he says.
At the end of 2006, Tshayana fell ill, but he didn’t inform any of his friends or family because he was scared they would say “we told you so”.
Tshayana’s uncle first noticed his nephew was sick when he visited him in Durban, where he was working at the time.
“My uncle tried to convince me to start taking treatment. Even though I could see that my health was deteriorating, I just couldn’t bring myself to take the treatment,” he says.
It was not until Tshayana became gravely ill that he finally decided to start taking ARVs in January 2007.
He admits regret at not heeding his family’s advice sooner, because he probably would not have become as sick as he did, but he says he loves them for not giving up on him.
“My family was supportive from the day I learnt that I was HIV positive in 1999. Even when I was refusing to take treatment, they would say that if I wouldn’t take treatment for myself, I should do it for them,” he says.
“Taking ARVs saved my life, and that is why it shatters me when a person close to me dies of an Aids-related illness.”