Maureen Famiglietti thought she knew what she was getting into when she volunteered to spend six weeks in Lesotho, Africa, helping doctors and nurses treat patients with HIV and AIDS.
A registered nurse with more than 20 years of experience, Famiglietti has worked for the last eight years at University Hospital in Syracuse, where she is involved in clinical-research trials with children who have HIV. She’d known for years that HIV and AIDS were devastating many countries in Africa, but that knowledge didn’t prepare her for the harsh reality she encountered in Lesotho.
“Intellectually, you know all the numbers, but to see it in person is an entirely different thing,” said Famiglietti, a member of St. Mary Parish in Auburn. “The country of Lesotho has about 29 to 30 percent infection rates, and I think in certain subpopulations it’s probably higher than that.”
Famiglietti traveled to Lesotho through the clinical-mentoring program run by the International Center for Equal Healthcare Access. Through this program, experienced health-care professionals spend several weeks in developing countries where they are paired with colleagues and share their skills and knowledge of HIV and infectious diseases, according to the center’s Web site, www.iceha.org.
It’s this mentoring component that makes the center’s program different from other medical-relief programs, Famiglietti said. Instead of simply providing medical supplies or personnel and taking care of short-term needs, ICEHA’s volunteers give the developing country’s medical professionals the knowledge and means to help themselves, Famiglietti said.
“You go in, you spend this intense amount of time with them, then let them have some time to work on it on their own,” she said.
Along with Lesotho, the center has programs in Rwanda, Vietnam, Cambodia and Ethiopia. Lesotho, which is an independent country located inside the borders of South Africa, is about the size of Massachusetts, Famiglietti said.
When Famiglietti’s family and friends learned she’d be spending six weeks in an African country, many of them assumed she’d be braving the type of heat, humidity and wild animals found in jungle climates. Lesotho, however, does not fit into that stereotypical image of an African country, she said.
“It’s all mountains. The wildest animals I saw were sheep and goats,” Famiglietti said.
In fact, the climate in Lesotho in May and June was comparable to early winter in upstate New York, complete with snow and frost, she added.
Famiglietti worked at St. James Hospital in central Lesotho from May 1 through June 10. When she arrived at the tiny hospital, she realized just what a grim outlook is faced by people suffering from HIV and AIDS in developing nations.
“Many of the areas outside of the United States and Europe are just beginning to have access to the treatments we’ve had for years,” Famiglietti said. “They’ve only had medications in (Lesotho) for about a year and a half.”
Since St. James Hospital is located in a particularly mountainous portion of the country, the hospital’s staff didn’t receive its first shipments of medications until January, she added. Famiglietti helped the hospital’s staff put three HIV-positive children on medication and said it was a milestone since the staff had never been able to treat such children before.
Lesotho’s government purchases AIDS and HIV medications, so there is no cost to patients. Even so, the government requires hospitals to adhere to strict systems for tracking the medications, Famiglietti said. The nurses at St. James Hospital were already overwhelmed by their enormous workload, so while she was there Famiglietti assisted in implementing the tracking system and helped the doctors and nurses understand it. She also taught them what she knew about the HIV/AIDS treatments.
“It’s going to be a long time before they have all the pieces in place. There’s much more work to be done. This is just a very tiny bit, but we have to start somewhere,” she said.
AIDS has devastated the country’s way of life, she added. A very large percentage of the country’s young-adult and middle-aged citizens have died or are dying from the disease. As a result, many of the nation’s children are being raised by their grandparents, and health officials don’t yet know how many of these children are infected, she said.
To make matters worse, the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS is far worse in Lesotho than in the United States, and many people are evicted from their villages when their neighbors find out they’re suffering from the disease, Famiglietti said. In spite of their hardships, however, Lesotho’s citizens are “wonderful, amazing, patient people,” she said.
“They have so many difficulties and challenges, and they don’t complain very much. The people in Lesotho are so appreciative of anything that you do for them. It makes you want to be helpful,” she said.
Before she left Lesotho, Famiglietti decided she wanted to help the country’s residents even when she was back home. One day, as she was walking past some young children playing in the hospital’s preschool area, she suddenly realized she never saw the children playing with toys.
“All they had to play with were some old truck tires,” she recalled.
That was something she could change, she decided, and when she returned to Auburn she began collecting art supplies to send to the hospital. She chose to collect art supplies because she thought they would be less bulky and easier to ship than other toys, and because they can be used by children of all ages.
“Give a child a piece of paper and a colored pencil; he’ll figure out what to do with it,” Famiglietti said.
In recent months, children in the faith-formation programs at St. Mary and Sacred Heart parishes in Auburn have collected construction paper and markers for Lesotho’s children, and adult parishioners have been very supportive as well, she said.
“So many people were so kind to me before I left, and they prayed for me when I was gone. They’re generous and good people,” she added.