Every World AIDS Day, I write about Faith. December 1, this day that we celebrate World AIDS Day, was Faith’s birthday.
I wish that Faith was alive today to turn 13.
Faith was the first child under my care who died from HIV. She was my patient on the wards of the referral hospital in western Kenya in the fall of 2004.
Faith was 4-years old, and she only weighed 4 kilograms – about 9 pounds. I had never seen a 4-year-old child like Faith before that day, a 4-year-old who weighed less than some newborn babies.
Four-year-olds are usually my favorites. They are full of imagination and spirit, confident in their new skills, and eager to tell you all about what makes them excited. Four-year-olds are not supposed to look like Faith looked. The HIV virus had stolen all of Faith’s energy as it destroyed her body’s immune system. The HIV virus was stealing away Faith. She was beautiful, but broken.
Faith’s mother had worked very, very hard to get her daughter to the referral hospital. Faith had been sick many times in her short life, and her mother knew the village health clinic could not make her daughter healthy. She scraped together every bit of money she could gather from her extended family in order to take Faith to the far-away referral hospital. You can see in the photo how happy and hopeful her mother looks. She is pleased she managed to get her daughter to this hospital.
Faith died two days after she was admitted to the hospital. Our medicines, our fluids, our nutritional support were all too little, too late. We could not save her. I could not save her. I remember her last breath, and that memory still brings tears to my eyes. Faith taught me my first real lesson in how HIV steals children’s lives.
After Faith died, her mother kept thanking me for this photo that I had taken of Faith. She did not have any other pictures of her daughter, and she was grateful to have this one. I felt terrible when she thanked me. I felt like I failed because I could not keep Faith alive. What was a photo in the face of the loss of a 4-year-old daughter?
I wished that I could change Faith’s story. I still wish that. I wish Faith was alive to turn 13 on this December 1, on this World AIDS Day. I wish we all could know Faith today, even as exasperating and difficult as 13-year-old girls can sometimes be.
We have lost so many Faiths. 210,000 children died from HIV last year. 210,000 stories we will never know. 210,000 birthdays that will not be celebrated this year.
When I took care of Faith, I did not realize that my life’s work would become trying to change the stories of children living with HIV in the world’s poor places. I did not know I would one day be caring for over 24,000 Kenyan children just like Faith through the AMPATH program. I did not know that I would find spend every day trying change the stories of children with HIV around the world into stories of health and hope.
3.4 million of the world’s children are living with HIV on this December 1, 2013. And only ONE-THIRD of those children have access to the medicines that they need to stay alive. Two out of three children with HIV will not get the medicines they need to continue to celebrate their birthdays. Without treatment, HIV will cut short the stories of two out of three of these 3.4 million children. That is not acceptable.
I want more birthdays for more children. We could have kept Faith alive if she had been able to enroll in one of our HIV clinics and start the medicines for HIV before she got so sick. We could have given her many more birthdays. On this December 1st, the AMPATH program in Kenya has 8,000 Faiths alive and growing and taking these medicines through our clinics. And we are learning how to provide the best possible HIV care for children all over the world.
On Faith’s birthday, I want the world to demand more birthdays for more children. We know how to do it. We can keep children with HIV alive. We just need to try.