Today, I had one of those moments after which you can sit back, sigh and say to yourself: “faith in humanity: restored!”
It was a conversation with my taxi driver, as I was heading back from a long day at the research labs on the edge of town, that left me so uplifted.
It wasn’t just that he was incredibly inspirational, more that his inspiration hit me when I least expected it.
Part of the reason I’m in Brazil is to learn about the healthcare system and what it’s like to be a patient here. It turned out that today, my most valuable lesson in this regard would be learned, not during my placement in the hospital, but from a man I met going about my day to day business.
Soon after finding out I was in Brazil to work on a project to do with the Zika virus, he asked me if I knew much about virology in general and about HIV. It turned out he volunteered for a local charity which supports people with HIV and fights stigma around the disease. What a selfless and commendable thing to do!
Taxi drivers here are relatively poor and have to work long hours to make ends meet, so for this man to be giving up his precious time to help his community was even more impressive.
After we had been chatting about the organisation he works for and his role, he revealed that he was HIV positive himself, and had been so for 20 years. As a heterosexual man who had never used drugs or slept with prostitutes, he was pretty shocked. He thought this was a thing that didn’t happen to people like him.
He had initially gone through denial, a period of avoiding medical attention entirely and refused to tell even his nearest relatives.
However, after an encounter with a particularly sympathetic doctor who explained everything clearly, he realised that he could live an (almost) normal life with HIV, thanks to the recent improvements in anti-HIV drugs. He only had to overcome his fears and accept medical treatment.
He does a lot of educational work with young people in schools and the charity provides legal support e.g. for people fighting unfair dismissal from their employer after disclosing their HIV status. Since working for the charity, he had seen stigma around the disease improve, but said there is still a lot of ignorance.
An example of the sorts of challenges a HIV positive man in Brazil faces
As an example of a recent challenge he told me about his struggle to get fertility treatment. His wife does not have HIV but they want children. Unprotected sex would risk passing HIV on to her, but there exists a type of IVF treatment which allows artificial insemination without the risk of transmitting the virus.
After failing in fights to get this treatment on the Brazilian NHS he eventually decided to save up and pay for it on the private system (a huge investment for a taxi driver). At several clinics he was told that they simply did not do IVF treatment for HIV positive men.
Eventually, he saved up and spent a significant amount of money for private fertility treatment and his wife successfully became pregnant, only for them to lose the baby in a miscarriage. Terrible. Unfortunately, his financial situation means trying again for children will be off the cards for quite some time.
My heart goes out to this man. So much respect for him and his charity work!
It’s been truly inspiring to learn that even some of the poorest people here are reaching out to help improve the lives of fellow citizens!
Brazillians you continue to impress me with your warmth, dedication and resilliance! If I can bring just a little of this attitude back to the UK, my trip will have been worthwhile!
Gestos – my taxi driver’s HIV/AIDS charity