Doing it for love, not money
Until a few years ago, Helemina Nangoro (32) did not receive a salary for comforting people while they died of AIDS.
Fortunately, she now receives a reasonable salary working as a carer for the Soweto Hospice in Gauteng.
‘I do this job because I love it,’ she says, her intense eyes belying her youthful beauty.
‘This job is hard to cope with and sometimes I do feel pain when I lose three or four patients in one week and sometimes I blame myself, that I should have done more. But in the end, I know I did my best.’
Everyday she comes to the Mofolo clinic to clock in and get supplies for the four to five clients she will visit in her community. She walks around the modest hospice with its beds and brightly coloured murals on the walls, showing me where the terminal patients sleep.
Nangoro chose to volunteer at the clinic in 2001 where she was trained because she could not afford to go to nursing college.
‘I remember a patient who had five children from aged 12 to 3 years old. I would worry that the children would be alone when their mother died. But luckily we managed to get her to the hospice and the children were supported.’
She has humility which enables her to look after complete strangers at their most vulnerable, bathing them, dressing their wounds, listening to their fears of death and giving them love.
‘People who are dying want to be loved,’ she says matter-of-factly. She does not over-analyse or try to unpack what drives her. ‘I tried to leave a few years ago but then I love my work and can’t leave my patients.’
Her work environment changed radically when the government made anti-retroviral treatment available in the public sector in 2003.
‘It was very difficult before 2002. We saw many patients that could not be saved. The only thing we could do was to tell them to go to the clinic but we knew they would only get sent home,’ said Nangoro. ‘Most of my patients died. But now at least I can refer them to the hospital for treatment.’
‘There was a lot of stigma in the homes. Patients would be isolated because the family was afraid to share cups or blankets.’
The hospice is filled with a few chattering patients sitting around a table making beaded red ribbons, creating a buoyant atmosphere in the Soweto Hospice.
Nangoro has a quiet day ahead with four patients to see. Two are bedridden, and the other two are healthy but need to be monitored for adherence to their anti-retroviral treatment.
This is an essential component to her work because adhering to the drug regiments will prevent people living with AIDS from building resistance to the drugs.
‘Sometimes my patients are tired of taking the tablets everyday. They do not feel like it and they are depressed. When I visit them, I give them the emotional support to take the tablets and carry on.’
Even when Nangoro is at home, she is never feels like her work is done.
‘I enjoy seeing my patients get well and even when I am at home; I wonder what my patients are doing. Are they taking their tablets? Are they alone?’
Her own daughter is 13 years old and Nangoro does worry that HIV awareness is high but wonders if her child will be protected. ‘We talk about the work I do and she [her daughter] knows she must abstain from sex.’
She believes that the advertising and AIDS campaigns are not working for the youth because ‘we still see high levels of HIV infection.’
‘If you are a community worker, you see the people dying. You see the numbers every week, those statistics are real. In the same family, we will see four or five die. They had this virus a long time ago.’
But Nangoro still remains hopeful. On this World AIDS day, Nangoro says she is celebrating the fact that fewer of her patients are dying than in the past.