CSON student Amelia Burke with patient in South Africa

Last spring, I received an Advanced Study Grant that would allow me to research the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa.  Even after reading multiple statistics, I never had imagined how prevalent the disease is in South Africa until I spent four weeks there.  In St. Mary’s Hospital, one of the hospitals I worked at in Durban, 90% of the patients were HIV positive.

While doing rotations with a doctor in the pediatric ward, she explained to me the vicious cycle of the HIV epidemic.  The doctor told me that one of our patient’s story is similar to that of many children that are HIV positive.  The expectant mother comes into the clinic because of her pregnancy but is also diagnosed with HIV.  The clinic prescribes her anti-retroviral medications (ARV’s) to help keep the virus at bay.  The mother then comes back to the clinic to give birth and is instructed to only breastfeed the baby while on the ARV’S (because this gives the lowest chance of passing the HIV to the child) and to come back in at specific time periods for check-ups.  Due to the HIV/AIDS-related stigma in South Africa, the mother does not come back for appointments and does not inform her family that she contracted HIV.  When this happens, another person, such as the aunt or grandmother, might feed the baby porridge or products other than breast milk.  This is harmful to the baby as newborns have not developed the necessary enzymes to digest food other than breast milk and the antibodies to protect their digestive system.  For this specific patient, the mother brought the baby in at six weeks and didn’t come back until the baby was three years old.  By that time, the HIV had taken its course through the body and the baby was malnourished, dehydrated, infected, and irritable.  In addition, the patient acquired tuberculosis.

Patient in St. Mary’s Hospital, South Africa

Hands-on experiences and getting to know the patients’ stories are only a couple of ways in which I got to research the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  I was also able to learn more about HIV/AIDs by sitting in on consults in which a doctor diagnosed an individual with HIV.  This was very interesting because it helped me understand the holistic approach that doctors use with this disease and it made me realize the lack of education the patients have about their diagnosis.  Overall, my advanced study grant allowed me to become educated in an aspect of nursing that I am extremely interested in, while gaining so much supplemental nursing knowledge along the way.