3.05.2013

It always seems impossible until it is done

~Nelson Mandela (via)


My first Public Health post! A lot of "firsts" this week on this blog including the launch of my online store.

I struggled quite a bit to write about this story, this topic, in this space. Would my readers be interested, offended, put off? I have used this space in the past to talk only about politically neutral topics, showcase my travel photography, have fun with my attempts at fashion- is this really the space to write about this topic? Honestly, I'm not sure. But as I've mentioned here, my passion for Public Health is a huge part of my life and I felt compelled, so here it is. 

If you haven't heard already, there's a report that a baby has been "functionally cured" of HIV in the state of Mississippi in the USA. When the story broke yesterday, I was literally reading every story I could get my hands on. Here are a few reputable versions of that story I would recommend reading: from the BBC, from ABC News in the U.S., and my favorite one being this one that inspired me to write this post. The only other case of a possible cure for HIV being this one reported in Germany in 2008.


What I wouldn't give to sit down with the men and women (Public Health nurses and HIV clinical managers) I've been fortunate enough to work with in the past, to discuss this case. You would never guess if you met these individuals on the street, how incredibly talented they were in their field. They are dedicated friends, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, tango dancers, gardeners, aspiring artists- who come to work and put their public health hats on. It is literally a hat of intensity that if you do not take it off at the end of the day, it will burn you out. 

Here's a quick catch-up for those who have just stumbled on this story or my blog for the first time, and do not know about my professional background in Public Health. I have mentioned before that I have held positions as an Epidemiologist. To be perfectly honest, I specifically have worked as a field Epidemiologist whose main goal was to educate, test, treat, and refer patients for STDs and HIV. That's right HIV. Many days were spent in the field in communities I worked, knocking on doors, searching for people in order to "refer" them for testing or to deliver HIV+ results. Sadly, I can no longer count on my hand how many people I've had to give HIV+ test results to. During my years working as an Epidemiologist, I have also had the unfortunate experience of informing pregnant mothers that they are in fact, HIV+. Hard and emotionally draining do not begin to describe these situations, which is why this story really resonates with me.

While reading this story late last night on the couch, I tried to imagine how the workers at that clinic in Mississippi must have felt- since mother to child transmission of HIV is completely preventable. Imagining not only having to inform the mother she was (+) when she showed up to give birth, but also helping deliver a child only to find out the child was also HIV+. Imagining a doctor who was determined to do the best she could in that situation by treating the newborn with faster and stronger treatment (than was recommended) from the moment she was born. Imagining the field Epidemiologist who was sent out to locate the mother and the child to bring them into the clinic after they were no-shows for several months. Trying to imagine what the mother must have been thinking, and the nurses who were part of the investigation and follow-up testing.

This story was all too familiar of my own experiences standing on those door steps with bad news. Informing someone they have HIV is nothing like telling someone they have cancer- for several reasons. The main one being that there is a huge social stigma surrounding this diagnosis (God is punishing you, you are a bad person, you must have deserved it in some way, the assumption that you are a prostitute, or drug user). Some people who are ignorant of how the virus is transmitted, think you cannot hug or touch or play sports or share food with someone who is HIV+. None of these are true, but make it extremely hard for any individual who is living with the virus.  

I'll never forget each person's face that I've had to counsel. Some showed no emotion, some wanted to literally murder their partner (these were usually individuals who had been married or with their partner for years), some were too young to completely understand the gravity of the situation, some cried deep sobbing tears, some were suicidal (and I spent many weekends sleeping with my work phone under my pillow in case they called me), and some left the room immediately upon receiving the news. I never knew what to expect going into each situation. 

Putting myself in the shoes of those Mississippi doctors, nurses, and epidemiologists, I can relate to the gravity of situations like the one in the news story. I also can completely relate, when a situation that seemed hopeless, turns into a miracle- a scientific miracle (my favorite kind). As a public health worker of any type, you live for these types of miracles, even if you are not directly involved. 

My hat goes off and my heart goes out to the staff at the University of Mississippi. Taking risks, especially in the world of medicine where you put your medical license on the line (even if you have the best intentions), do not always have happy endings. I can say with confidence that Dr. Hannah Gay, the pediatric HIV specialist who initially treated the miracle child,  and her team are celebrating right now. Dr. Gay without a doubt has a long, successful career ahead of her.


A huge THANK YOU to all Public Health workers today for all that you do for our communities!!