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Family day at an HIV clinic in Tanzania
Written by volunteer Catherine Clansky
During the week, the Mbeya Referral Hospital’s care and treatment center, known as the Center of Excellence (COE), is packed with adults seeking services for HIV/AIDS as well as a variety of other diseases. Saturdays, however, have a distinctly different feel. The hundred plus adults of a typical day are replaced by thirty to fifty HIV positive pediatric patients who can be found running around and throwing the occasional temper tantrum when they aren’t too happy about being weighed or measured.
On a typical Saturday, children begin arriving between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. and the clinic continues until all patients have been seen, usually around mid-day. Because HIV is so rampant in Mbeya and the surrounding areas, many of the younger children are orphans who have lost one or both parents, and are accompanied by aunties, uncles, grandparents, or older siblings. It is not rare, either, to see nine or ten year olds arriving alone, having taken the bus or walked because no one was able to accompany them. As the patients arrive, they check in, their files are pulled, and their vital signs are taken. They then wait to see a doctor and afterwards, if necessary, they visit the dispensary to obtain their necessary medications.
As a volunteer, I have recently had the opportunity to set up a play area for the pediatric patients with toys and books that had been donated by the U.S. Military HIV Research Program staff in Rockville. Before the play area was set up, the children could be found in front of one of the waiting room TVs or attempting gymnastic feats with the aid of one of the stairwell railings. Now, however, Saturday patients can be found building Lego creations, pounding out their version of a song on a xylophone, and reading books.
Not only are the kids enjoying the play area, but parents are as well. As one father told us, “the children are never tired when they come here; it is easier for them to agree to come because they are coming to play.” It’s also easier on the parents. Before the kids were sleeping, now the kids are awake and having fun.” Setting aside Saturdays exclusively for pediatric patients provides an environment where HIV positive children can meet friends who are in the same situation as they are and where they can have some fun while also receiving quality care.
Catherine Clansky is from Bethesda, Maryland. She is a recent graduate from Georgetown University and is currently volunteering for MHRP at the Walter Reed Project–Tanzania.