Touched by the angel of the PNG AIDS ward
A couple of Sundays ago in Port Moresby, Stephanie Copus-Campbell – the head of AusAID’s program in PNG – invited me and a colleague to accompany her on a regular Sunday activity.
Every Sunday, Stephanie goes to the local supermarket and buys $70 worth of oranges which she then takes to the AIDS ward at the Port Moresby hospital.
HIV infection rates are high in PNG and while antiretroviral drugs are available, people still come to this place to die.
The AIDS ward is a large room: holding around 60 patients in four rows of fifteen beds each. But while there are 60 patients, this only accounts for about half the people in the ward. All but a handful are accompanied by at least one family member, in many cases more.
There was a single nurse on duty the day we visited. Sitting at her desk she was deeply absorbed in her reading material. With little hope of meeting the needs of all the patients in the ward it was abundantly clear that family and friends were the primary source of care.
Yet with more than 100 people filling the ward it was surprisingly light and airy. Happy music played. It was a hint that this room contained more than just misery.
We walked down the first line of beds and Stephanie provided an orange to each patient. As she did there was a shake of the hand, a rub of the back, a comforting hug. With each physical contact you could feel a barrier break. In the eyes of Stephanie patients were not defined by their illness, they were not untouchable. They were simply human beings in need of the most fundamental human interaction.
The orange was appreciated but it was quickly apparent that it was not the point. Despite their circumstances, in almost every case Stephanie elicited a smile. And with such little time left, these smiles had all the qualities of something rare and precious. To me they sparkled.
Stephanie would at one moment talk to the families and then in the next quietly tell us more of the story of the ward.
The family and friends, I learnt, had not come to visit. They had come to stay. They entered the ward with their loved ones and would not leave their side until they left this world. Loving husbands or wives, sad but stoic children, embracing mothers and fathers, would sleep next to the bed or under it. They would tend to wounds. They would talk about their lives. They would provide love.
Death was not to be faced alone. These patients would die in the bosom of their family.
As we walked from one bed to the next the human compassion in the room steadily rose from the misery which had brought people to this place. By the time we had reached the end it shone so bright that it was blinding. Met with the most devastating of circumstances, people were doing the most extraordinary things.
In this moment I saw Papua New Guinea in a new light. For all the issues which beset this nation, the humanity which characterises its culture is breathtaking. These are great people in a great country.
And in the middle of all this was Stephanie, offering a smile, providing a topic of conversation, reminding people of the easy normality of a piece of fruit – a normality they used to know. In her own demonstrable way Stephanie was spreading a simple and splendid humanity as well.
Sadly and desperately, in a handful of cases the misery was not abated. Lonely figures, without family, lay in their beds knowing that an embrace or a comforting touch would not be theirs again.
A fourteen year old girl, skeletally thin, and close to death, sat on her bed all alone with a look of confusion as to what force or reason could have condemned her to this appalling fate. How a fourteen year old girl can have AIDS is a question which contains its own horrors.
The orange was appreciated, I think. Stephanie hugged her and hopefully for a moment, the pain was shared. But for this little girl there was no smile.
I left the ward with an experience far more profound than I had expected on this day. There are images, good and bad, that I will carry with me from this day forth. Yet for Stephanie this was her Sunday, every Sunday.
As an aid worker, Stephanie believes in the power of giving. While so many Australians generously give to NGO’s that do fabulous work, Stephanie feels that the opportunity of living in Port Moresby allows her to give by doing this act every week. It is an amazing act indeed.
Stephanie Copus-Campbell is a very special person. Papua New Guinea is a very special place.
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