Each morning, as the sun is rising, Linda Chawanda makes breakfast for her two girls before heading to the hospital to help newly diagnosed HIV+ patients in Malawi.
Linda is a single mother and works as an Expert Patient at Dignitas International’s Tisungane Clinic at Zomba Central Hospital. In this role, she encourages everyone, especially expectant mothers, to get tested and treated for HIV. She inspires others to live healthier lives.
Zomba Central Hospital is part of Malawi’s public health system and as such, largely services the poor. The hospital is the main referral centre for people living in the country’s South-Eastern region, which has a population of approximately 3.1 million people.
Linda uses her skills and living testimony to assist in the delivery of HIV/AIDS services and support.
“I work at the hospital as an Expert Patient – someone who is HIV+ and openly declares their status. The main role is to inspire others, especially my fellow women to go for HIV testing,” she says.
On a typical day, Linda is seen guiding patents to consultation rooms, assisting with simple tasks like recording weights in patient’s health passports, providing one-to-one counselling and much more.
Dignitas International runs Tisungane Clinic in collaboration with Malawi’s Ministry of Health. It has become Linda’s second home. She is often seen at the Clinic with her baby daughter, Chisomo (which means Grace of God).
“There is no one to babysit her at home so I bring her with me,” Linda says. Sometimes, especially during school holidays, Chisomo is looked after by Linda’s older daughter Esther, who is 14 years old.
Before learning she was HIV+ in 2006, Linda had been getting sick quite frequently. Once she learned her status, she was devastated. But then she started treatment and regained her strength.
When Linda broke the news to her family, she received mixed reactions. Some embraced her but others discriminated against her, refusing to welcome her into their home or provide financial support.
She recalls, “Initially, they thought my status was a death sentence and that I would infect them with the virus. Most of my relatives have now accepted my condition and have welcomed me back into the family.”
Today, she is healthier able to complete activities that are physically challenging, like growing maize and cultivating her garden. She also goes to Tisungane Clinic every weekday.
“I feel happy and satisfied to help people who are in a condition similar to mine. We freely interact and exchange ideas and reduce worries that would have impacted negatively on our health,” says Linda.
During her pregnancy, Linda was confident that her baby would be born HIV-free because of Malawi’s groundbreaking Option B+ program. Under Option B+, all pregnant women are tested for HIV and offered life-long antiretroviral treatment, regardless of the stage of their disease. Today Chisomo is a happy and healthy toddler.
Option B+ is an example of ‘treatment as prevention’. By suppressing an HIV+ mother’s viral load with antiretroviral treatment, Option B+ prevents transmission to her baby before and during birth, and while breast-feeding. This ensures that babies are born HIV-free and that mothers remain healthy so they can care for their children, and lead long and productive lives.
“I am thankful to Dignitas for supporting me to get tested and treated. I encourage other women to do the same. I tell them ‘Look at me I am healthy and strong and my baby is HIV-free. I work and support my children without any problem.’”