Kirsten Sloan is a Nurse and lay Marist from New Zealand. Arriving just over two years ago to lead the HIV AIDS Health Project in Ranong, she has become familiar with visiting poor Burmese Migrants in their homes as they suffer alone with the burden of being HIV positive.
Kirsten shares a memory and a glimpse of a day at work in the streets, homes, and hearts of Burmese Migrants and their families.
To journey with someone as their life on earth comes to an end is a priviledge. I had the honour of knowing ‘Maria'(not her real name), a beautiful young woman of 26 years, during the last year of her life.
Her struggles were enormous on all levels being inflicted with severe hearing loss from physical abuse. Tuberculosis (TB) that did not respond to medication. A body trying to fight AIDS.
She moved home four times in the year due to family and society rejection in a hope that the next place she would find refuge. Her entire household and personal belongings could fit in a few plastic bags.
A shell wind chime will be forever in my mind, made by Maria’s hands. This was her only treasure. Her most precious gift. She wanted to give it to me. I was torn between accepting her gift and taking the only thing she owned.
I asked if I could hang my gift in her home and told her that it would bring me much joy to see such a beautiful thing when I visited her. I saw Maria in the highs of lows of the year and together we enjoyed the wind chime.
As Maria became more unwell we began to visit daily. I knew that she often lay alone in the house day after day. Her mother had returned but only as a physical presence. She would not touch her daughter. And she often arrived only after dark.
It was difficult to see a young woman’s body waste away until she was only bone. And I know I could do nothing to prevent it. I had to see past this as I gently washed her body.
As I held her and cleaned her, I reflected on the words of Jesus “what you do to the very least you do to me”, this body I held may have been Maria but it was also Christ. How privileged I am to care in such a way, Christ’s love not only strengthens me and it is His love I give to others by bringing the mercy of Christ through compassion.
A few days before Maria died I was called to ask if I would come. Maria was distressed and frightened to die. Along with Fr Gil and Toby (members of the health team) we visited. Maria was surrounded by her family. This was the first time we had seen most of them.
I surprised myself at how calmly I spoke with the family explaining the situation and answering their questions. But I also knew it was neither my place nor would serve any purpose to be angry or pass blame for the abandonment of their sister. I hoped in her last few days that they would care for her.
As I spoke to Maria about dying, hoping I could alleviate her fear it seemed that at this moment not only could she hear but also understand. Maria lay on the floor as I knelt beside of her, I was talking as I would to anyone forgetting that I had to talk loudly near the ear which still had some hearing.
I remember pausing for Toby to translate but this time he didn’t say anything. ‘She understands you’ he said. Frowning I said ‘but she only knows Burmese’ and as I was speaking English how could this be. Neither of us had the answer but Maria nodded and smiled and so I continued.
Before we left I washed Maria’s body. This was to be my last time but a first time for her sister who helped me. As I held her I hoped that reconciliation within the family would take place. I still see Maria’s smile, her face that had softened as a peace had come over her as I turned once more before walking out the door.
The Marist Mission Health Project serves over 70 HIV AIDS Patients in Ranong and supports many families as they seek to get the life saving ARV medication, return to health and work to support their families.
Each year the team makes over 1000 home visits, and provides over 2000 translation appointments with the hospital to support those with HIV. The Health project supports a number of children living with HIV AIDS.