Less than a decade ago, antiretroviral drugs weren’t available in Africa and having AIDS meant a certain, painful death.
It’s not surprising, then, that many of our patients are upset and afraid when they are first diagnosed with HIV and come to our Tisungane HIV/AIDS clinic in Zomba, Malawi. Then they see Gertrude Mnthambala, an ‘expert patient’, buzzing around the clinic and orienting new patients to how the clinic works, registering them, and taking their heights and weights. Along with other ‘expert patients’, Gertrude’s efforts greatly reduce the administrative burden on health workers and allows them to focus on treatment and care.
“I tell new patients, ‘I’m HIV-positive. I was once seriously ill too,’” says the mother of three boys. “I’m a role model.”
Our medical staff advise patients repeatedly about how important it is for them to take their pills, but when Gertrude explains that the drugs are what give her the energy she has today, that’s when the message hits home. “It makes it easier for them to know that I went through the same challenges they have. They trust me,” she explains.
In addition to counselling patients, Gertrude and other expert patients handle administrative and light clinical duties. She helps collect and store patient information and she personally follows up with patients who have missed appointments. This matters because patients who don’t refill their prescriptions on time put themselves at risk of developing drug resistance, which makes their illnesses more difficult to treat.
We believe that empowered patients and empowered women like Gertrude are vital to the global health revolution. They may not receive the international fame of research scientists and doctors, but they inspire hundreds of people every day and rise to the challenges around them without a second thought.
As Gertrude says, “I really enjoy my job, especially because I’m able to help other parents. I am giving back to my community.”