Sok Heng is 7 years old, an AIDS patient and an orphan. Although it is unknown how she contracted the disease, her family kicked her out of the home because they fear and misunderstand her sickness.
Since NGO workers found her on the streets of Takhmau in October, Sok Heng has lived in the Missionaries of Charity hospice on the western outskirts of Phnom Penh.
“She does not think she will die,” sighs Sister Maria, one of the four nuns who runs the hospice, the only one of its kind in Cambodia. “But she will not live long. One day, the disease will win.”
The sisters would like to take in more people like Sok Heng—whose families refuse to care for them—so they can die in relative comfort and companionship.
But the hospice only has 12 beds.
Since it opened in June, 48 people have made their way here. Twenty-two have died.
Cambodia is a nation wracked by HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS-related illnesses. But health workers are fighting an entrenched ignorance and fear about the virus.
With proper education and training, however, Sister Maria thinks it just may be possible to get AIDS patients back into their homes.
“[Cambodians] really take care of each other,” she says. “If they understand a little bit more about AIDS, they will take care of their own.”
The most important thing in treating AIDS patients is to listen to them, to speak with them and “to give them something to hang on to,” Sister Maria says.
That kind of verbal and emotional stimulation extends the life of a person stricken with AIDS by months, activists say. “It doesn’t take any medicine to make a person feel a little bit more comfortable,” she says.
Sitting on the outdoor bench at the hospice, holding Sok Heng on her lap, Sister Maria says she has seen gravely ill AIDS patients recover significantly.
The longest-running resident of the hospice is a young woman who has been there for eight months. She contracted HIV as a prostitute. She still walks and speaks with animation, but has no appetite and battles diarrhea.
The woman may die soon, but without the companionship from hospice residents and staff, she would have died months ago, Sister Maria explains.
“They suffer very much at the last stage,” she says, “but all of them die in peace.”
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