By DR KENNETH D KEMP
In 1992, Mike Tyson, the heavy-weight champion of the world, was charged with rape, tried and found guilty. Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to go to space, the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar escaped from prison and Bill Clinton was elected the 42nd President of the United States. That year is also notable for the Los Angeles riots which erupted following the acquittal of four white police officers on trial for the beating of Rodney King.
But world events notwithstanding, 1992 is forever etched in my patient’s mind for a very different reason because it was the year his mother died from AIDS. She was 45 years old at the time and it changed his life forever.
He was born the second of three boys but was the only child sent to live with his father at six weeks old while his two half-brothers remained with their mother. It wasn’t until years later that he appreciated the reason why.
His father thought he was protecting him and surrounded him with the love and support of his family. But his father’s well-meaning actions left him with questions that no one would answer. He wanted to know why he was separated from the rest of his family. These unanswered questions made him blame himself for years and he was filled with anger, resentment and a crippling sense of abandonment.
At age 14 he learned the reason was because not only did his mother have AIDS but his older and younger brothers also died from the disease at ages 38 and 30 respectively. Each one of them became infected by a chronic lifestyle of drug addiction and having unprotected sexual intercourse with multiple (and sometimes married) partners. They were all aware of their diagnosis but never sought treatment. How many partners they many have infected remains unknown.
He still hasn’t resolved all of the anger and resentment from his childhood and he never became close to his mother or his siblings but now, in his mid-50s, my patient has dedicated his life to helping people with this disease. He does not have HIV/AIDS but is heartbroken daily by the struggle this population faces.
Assisting people in his community through an outreach ministry has given him a sense of purpose and he believes it to be his life’s calling. He often feels like a small relentless candle in a shadow of broken men and women. It is a cross he has chosen to bear and he has promised to do so until his last breath. Today he has chosen to share his story because you can’t heal what you don’t speak and because helping others has helped him so much, he is infinitely humbled by the opportunity to walk this path.
HIV and AIDS swept across the world in the 1980s and early 1990s despite being discovered decades earlier. At the time, being diagnosed with the disease was a near death sentence where the treatment was almost worse than the disease. The virus destroyed the immune system and the slew of anti-retrovirals that patients had to take daily, sometimes numbering over 10 to 15 different drugs, had severe side effects. Fortunately, the treatment options offered today are infinitely better than they once were. The United Nations has taken the position that stigma and discrimination, the marginalisation and criminalisation of communities and a lack of access to health, education and other essential services has been a deleterious roadblock to ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.
In an interview earlier this week with Carlyne Smith-McKenzie, the secretary of the board of directors and chair of the education committee for The Bahamas Aids Foundation, she stated that World AIDS day is celebrated on the 1st of December every year and this year she considered what it might take for us to finally eradicate AIDS.
Both now and in her former position as adherence manager for the National AIDS programme, she is convinced there is still a level of stigma and discrimination against this community. She also imparted how important it is we as a country respect the personal choices and decisions made by people regarding their intimate relationships and things they can’t control like their country of origin, race and the like.
Mrs Smith-McKenzie emphasised that looking at the availability of HIV care and support services and the fact HIV treatment is free in The Bahamas, we are well on our way to ending AIDS here. To do so, however, requires the personal will and an unwavering concerted effort by these individuals to seek help and stay committed to their medical regimen.
My patient echoes this in saying past behaviour is the best predictor of future performance. That is why he only helps people who truly want to be helped. But for those who do, providing them with emotional support, something to eat, a bed to lay on and sheets or clothes can have an absolutely profound impact.
The work throughout the years of the All-Saints Camp, the AIDS Secretariat and the AIDS Foundation within The Bahamas has been monumentally impactful and they deserve the praise of each and every citizen. They consistently remind us that using a condom remains the best prophylactic measure against contraction of the virus.
To date over 77 million people have become infected with HIV and more than 36 million people have died worldwide from AIDS related illnesses since the start of the epidemic. In contrast, COVID-19, has claimed approximately 5.4 million lives and has dominated every news cycle for the past two years. We’ve seen it bring the world to a halt in real time and cripple the economy of some of the most powerful nations. Despite the longer time frame, it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that six times more people have died from HIV/AIDS than COVID-19 and a future analysis regarding the number of COVID-19 deaths among people already living with HIV/AIDS is warranted.
Sometimes parents conceal the truth from their children to protect them but by doing do, despite their best intentions, these children grow up with intense anger and resentment. In most cases the truth eventually reveals itself and all the years of blame and self-doubt was for nothing. For my patient, 1992 is a year that he will never forget but he chose to transform his trauma into triumph and as it turns out he became a hero himself for members of his community just as his father was to him.
May we each collectively follow in his footsteps and transform our pain into something positive that benefits people, and particularly the disenfranchised, throughout our community. That will ultimately be our true saving grace and allow us to leave this country even better than what our forefathers bestowed to us for the next generation and beyond.
• Nick-named ‘The Prince of Podiatry’, Dr. Kenneth D. Kemp is the founder and medical director of Bahamas Foot and Ankle located in Caves Village, Western New Providence. He served as the Deputy chairman for the Health Council for 5 years and he currently sits on the board of directors for the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation in his role as co-vice-chairman.