Young men had been becoming ill, deteriorating rapidly and dying. But by the time his body was wheeled into the last room of a corridor at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital there was a name for the mystery illness. It was 1984 and his was Barbados's first HIV diagnosis.
"Fear and panic broke out among the staff," retired nurse, Hilda Thompson remembered. "I put on five pairs of gloves, four gowns, three caps, three pairs of overshoes, two goggles, many masks."
The flow of facts about HIV followed—that it is transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, pre-ejaculate and breast milk but could not be passed on through a hug, a touch, a kiss, a talk. Thompson moved from a place of fear to one of empathy and action.
"I began to experience guilt. I thought about how I would feel if I was that person on that bed and nobody came to spend time comforting me and showing they cared," she recalled.
Paediatrician Maria Dillon-Remy was at the Port of Spain General Hospital in 1985 when the first HIV positive babies were being born. With no treatment or testing system in place the only way to tell whether a mother was positive was when her baby became ill.
"I remember the specific case of an 18-year-old mother whose baby passed away at six weeks. The doctor literally threw her hands in the air. She was expected to give compassion and hope to her patients but was herself devastated," Remy recalled.
From 1993 to 2004 Thompson would go on to head the national clinic for people living with HIV in Barbados and develop a compassionate model for their care, treatment and support.
"By the time I retired the government had been able to give antiretroviral therapy (ART) to clients for two years. When we first formed the support group by the time you worked through the process with someone and gave them a sense of community there would be just a few months before they passed on. Now they are living long and strong," she reported proudly.
In 1999 Dillon-Remy helped pilot the Prevention of Mother to Child Treatment (PMTCT) system in Tobago before it rolled out to Trinidad the following year.
"In the beginning medical personnel didn't believe women would want to be tested for HIV but once they understood what it meant for their babies—that it was possible to treat them and so reduce the chance of passing it on—women agreed. I'm hoping to reach the stage where we eliminate mother to child transmission," Dillon-Remy said.
Thompson and Dillon-Remy have learned through time and commitment that strides in the HIV challenge are possible. They also share the conviction that it isn't enough to contribute to the response in their professional capacities. Both were among the contributors to the Channels of Hope HIV/AIDS Facilitators Training Course hosted by Operation Mobilisation Caribbean (OM Caribbean) in partnership with AIDSLink International and OM T&T.
Held in Trinidad in 2011, this was the first time that the global Christian HIV sensitisation programme was conducted in the region. Participants from eight Caribbean countries took part in an intensive week of workshops on HIV, gender, prevention, stigma and discrimination and Christian doctrine. Channels of Hope is based on the premise that the Christian community has a duty to educate about HIV and help eradicate stigma and discrimination.
Organiser Merle Ali, a Trinidadian, who participated in the course with her husband in India several years ago, had been pushing to give people from the region the experience. Her own introduction to HIV took place during her years as a nurse in wards in the United States and England.
"I was able to interact with a lot of HIV positive patients. I felt deeply moved by how stigmatised they were and the way they were treated," Ali said. Among Channels of Hope's approaches are interactions with people living with HIV/AIDS. Like these medical professionals, participants are able to put a human face to the virus while confronting their own fears, misconceptions and intolerance.
Participant and Jamaican University of Technology lecturer, Janice Wissart, called for a shift from denial and judgment to realism and compassion in the Christian community.
"In my eyes I think it is very difficult to say you are a Christian and not know the element of love," she said. "I don't see how you can love and say that HIV is not your business. People living with HIV are our brothers and sisters. If we move away from the idea of punishment and judgment we have a better chance of controlling what is happening through awareness and responsibility for our actions and the consequences of our actions." Dillon-Remy added that Christians must become an "HIV competent community".
"We must speak the truth," she insisted. "But we must do it in love." For these women the HIV challenge is every bit the Christian assignment: what would Jesus do?
A key aspect of that response is sharing messages that speak to both Christian ideals and life's realities.
"Condoms have a place. Not everyone is going to abstain or be faithful. Yes we do have our guiding principles but what is the reality that exists?" challenged Ali.
Thompson said: "Of course we talk about abstinence but we also know that in our churches and in the country there are people who may also be infected. We have to let people understand the need to be responsible for their own sexuality and protect themselves and others."
The prevention assignment is urgent. By 2015 the region must reduce its new infections by 50 per cent. Ernest Massiah, Director of the UNAIDS Caribbean Regional Support Team pointed to new research which proves that early treatment reduces the risk of transmitting the virus by 96 per cent. He also noted that if the Caribbeam is to reduce its one percent adult HIV prevalence, all hands are needed on deck. (T&T's adult prevalence is 1.5 per cent.)
"Religion involves large segments of the population. We need to see what opportunities there are to speak with religious leaders to find out where they have been involved and where they feel they can contribute," he said "Respect, dignity and love are what we require as human beings and as Caribbean citizens. These core values are shared in our churches, temples and mosques."
In June our governments signed on to a Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS in which they committed to "create enabling legal, social and policy frameworks in each national context in order to eliminate stigma, discrimination and violence related to HIV". Massiah stressed that governments can't accomplish these goals on their own. The buy-in of all communities is key.
To find out more about OM Caribbean visit http://omcaribbean.org/
Photo Caption: Retired Barbados nurse, Hilda Thompson Credit: UNAIDS Caribbean