A humblingencounter with an infant in a hospital years ago set Sandisile Tshuma on her life's path working in the field of HIV/AIDS.
“I marveled at him: such a beautiful, warm, and peaceful baby.... What could have brought him here and why was he alone?”
Never in all my life has linoleum held such a profound fascination for me as it did on my first time volunteering at the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa.
My eyes bored holes in the floor as I found my feet shuffling uncontrollably. At the same time, they anchored me to a single spot like a ton of lead.
This was a bad idea, a voice in my head announced.
I can't stand that particular voice. She is a smug know-it-all who sounds like the narrator of Desperate Housewives and is only ever present when things are going badly.
She was right though. I am not a people person, I hate hospitals, I am repulsed at the thought of germs and sick people, and I am scared of real life children. Particularly babies. I had no business being at a children's hospital thinking I could be put to any kind of use.
But there I was. One by one the other volunteers were assigned to various duty stations: some were asked to sort through donations; others were asked to play with sick children. As we were assigned to various jobs, I became increasingly aware of the rapid and powerful thudding of my heart against my rib cage. I swear that traitor was trying to escape. Surely, this was to be a resoundingly disastrous attempt at doing some good in the world.
The nurse handing out the assignments was nothing short of a force of nature. The magnitude of this woman was both terrifying and awe-inspiring. I remember her as a raging weather phenomenon or an impossible geographical feature. She was massive, and when her no-nonsense eyes locked with mine it became clear that I was doomed.
You. You're coming with me, she said.
Oh heck no, I thought and slid behind a girl in front of me.
There were only two of us left.
Tarryn, they are waiting for you in the garden. Wena (she pointed at me), let's go!
As we walked through the corridors, me with my feet of lead and Sister Hurricane with the power of a gale force wind, I began to nurture hope that perhaps I would be relegated to a windowless room at the back of the hospital somewhere and made to sort through old patients' records. I was hoping for some such innocuous activity. Anything but human contact would have been great.
We stopped walking. I looked up from the linoleum. There, in the room, a baby in a crib, barely audibly whimpering in a sea of soft fluffy bright yellow bedding. When I saw a pair of tiny feet clad in peppermint green woolen booties poking through the bedding I knew that I was done for.
The Hurricane handed me a feeding bottle.
The thing is, I- I -I don't really know how... I stammered.
It's fine; he knows what to do. I'll check on you later.
I gingerly offered the bottle to the baby.
Don't be silly. Pick him up and sit in that chair!
Oh. Er. Yes. Of course. That's what I was about to...
She was already gone when I lifted the soft mass of peppermint wrapped preciousness and then proceeded to freeze in mid air.
Do not screw this up. Do not drop the infant. What are you doing? Do not grip him so tightly, you'll smother him! Calm down. That's better. Everything is fine. Everyone is okay.
Little wrinkly hands reached up to my chin while hungry eyes drank in my apprehensive face and examined me closely. Steadily, the baby gulped down the contents of the bottle. As I looked into the eyes of this helpless human being who was putting his trust in me—a total stranger—to provide him sustenance, I was humbled. I suddenly felt connected to the pulse of life and I was simply grateful to be a part of it.
I marveled at him: such a beautiful, warm, and peaceful baby.... What could have brought him here and why was he alone?
Will my baby make it? a frail, shaky voice broke into my thoughts.
The woman was tiny, drowning in what appeared to be hospital robes. She looked like a rag doll as she struggled to move her wheelchair closer to us. Her eyes were bulging giving her a look of bewilderment and her skin was covered in lesions while her hands shook uncontrollably.
I immediately recognized the signs.
Is he all right?she whispered the words in Xhosa through bright pink quivering lips. It wouldn't be long for her.
I looked down at her baby. His skin was the color of savanna grasslands at sunrise in the dry season. As he stared up at me, oblivious to his impending orphan-hood, he flashed a toothless grin that pushed hard against chubby, dimpled cheeks tinged with pink.
Oh dear. It was my treacherous heart again, swelling against my rib cage and exploding with a feeling I cannot articulate... I heard her lungs wheezing beside me. Argh! Why? Why, why, why was she asking me? I wasn't a doctor. I was just a kid volunteering for the afternoon.
Yes, I mumbled.
You could at least have the decency to look at her when you speak to her... it was the nagging voice in the back of my head.
I turned and fixed my eyes somewhere in the middle of the woman’s forehead. Yes, he will make it, I said hoping to God this wouldn't turn out to be a lie.
She sighed, Enkosi.
I looked away. Thank you? Why on Earth was she thanking me?
He likes you. Do you come here often? Her wheezing was escalating.
Y-yes. A lie.
Will you come back tomorrow?
Yes. Another lie.
Enkosi. 'Nkos' ibusise. (Thank you. God bless.)
Nothing wounds me as much as the gratitude of the poor and helpless. It pierces straight through my spleen and leaves my soul hemorrhaging guilt and a deep sense of failure and inadequacy. Because let's be honest. Can we ever do enough? Do we ever really extend ourselves as much as we could? I feel I don’t. I could definitely do more.
This experience at the children’s hospital was years ago now, and it can only be described as a burden of the privileged. A woman at her most vulnerable, allowed me, an outsider, to hold her most treasured gift in my arms. She trusted that I was not only there to help, but that I could help.
I walked out of the Red Cross Children’s Hospital that day knowing one thing with absolute certainty: I was privileged to have time and resources to help, and I would spend as much time as I could helping.
At the time, I was studying science in university, determined to help find a cure for cancer or HIV. I enjoyed my studies, but in my free time, I was involved in many activist causes. AIDS denial was rife in South Africa, and I volunteered to help out where I could.
This work was important. This was about saving millions of lives. This work made my heart sing. And that was my inflexion point. Since then I’ve spent the greater part of my career tackling issues related to HIV and AIDS, from universal antiretroviral treatment to HIV prevention and adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights education.
Still, I know I could do more. I always feel I could be doing more.
I do not remember the infant’s name. I don't even know exactly what he was sick with. If he did survive, as I told his mother he would, he is 15 years old this year. I imagine he can do quadratic equations and loves playing soccer with his friends. I imagine he gets three solid meals a day and is happy and well adjusted.
I force myself to imagine this because the chances are that, as one of over 2 million children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, the alternative reality is far too dark and depressing for me to live with and actually be able to sleep at night.
I have hope, however. I work with amazing human beings who care deeply and who are turning the tide on HIV, reducing its devastating impact. Daily, we’re learning new insights that equip us to better respond to the virus and its impact on society and particularly on children and youth.
This year, after a long and arduous journey, I completed my master’s degree in public health. My thesis focused on young people living with HIV in a Cape Town township. They are using virtual support groups on their mobile phones to provide each other with various forms of social support. This innovation inspires me. They inspire me. These youth are, strong, resilient, and brave.
I have no doubt in their ability to build a better future. I imagine this to also be true of the baby boy I met in a quiet hospital ward all those years ago.
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