Wiengkaew Tongwa

A Lao name. The name of a very unfortunate girl from Laos. Wiengkaew came to our clinic in Viengkhuk three months ago. She was a very pretty, polite and engaging individual. We had her get a blood test, and the outcome was that she had contacted AIDS, and was experiencing some skin problems. Ieu and Ms. Noi are usually present to serve to 40-50 adults who come for help and direction. It is difficult to get a foreigner into an AIDS program, but we were able to do so.

Wiengkaew always came with French bread for the staff and myself. She would bring other presents as well. We never asked Wiengkaew how she contacted the disease. It would be cruel to do so. Some people give details, but most don't. I did learn, though, that she had a mother and four siblings who depended upon her income to go to school. Noi asked if I would help her with some expenses, but when we talked to Wiengkaew, she told us that she had a French boyfriend (of Lao descent) in Paris, who sent her $250 a month. For Laos, that is a big sum of money. I asked her if she told her boyfriend about her problem. She looked away sadly, and then said she didn't dare do so, for fear he would not want to have anything to do with her anymore.

We finally took Wiengkaew to get her CD4 test, which showed that she needed the anti-retroviral drugs now. The doctors began with the usual AIDS cocktail, and within a few weeks, it became apparent that Wiengkaew was having a serious reaction from one or more component of the drugs. The doctor stopped treatment, to let the drugs flush out of her system. In the meantime, the boyfriend was hurrying in from France, and Wiengkaew was frantic that he would know she had AIDS. Shortly before his arrival, the doctors tried another series of different drugs. But poor Wiengkaew not only had a serious setback from these drugs, but bacteria accumulated in her brain and brain stem. When the boyfriend appeared, Wiengkaew was screaming from pain. An injection was administered, and she never regained consciousness. The boyfriend stormed angrily out of the hospital before Wiengkaew went into a coma, and that was the last we saw of him. It also was the last conscious image she had. Rejected on her deathbed.

Wiengkaew's mother was devastated. Her daughter, the only source of income in the family, was dying, and she had no money, but wanted Wiengkaew to die at home. With heavy hearts we hired the ambulance from a private hospital, and Wiengkaew crossed Friendship Bridge for the last time. Shortly after her arrival at home, she died surrounded by stunned and grieving family.

Scenes and heart rending situations like this are par for those with AIDS. The lucky get the medicine and it helps until the virus mutates. But there are some that the life giving drugs turn into the most horrible type of poison. For the most part, the bravest people I know are people with AIDS. Even our children at Sarnelli House struggle to maintain their dignity as they suffer in silence and real pain. Thanks to friends and donors, we are able to bring them relief and a gradual return to health.

Like my brother Jack wrote after visiting us twice and who died tragically last September, "these kids taught an old man the value of life and how to live it to the fullest".

Fr. Mike

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