George Owino is one of FACES’ most celebrated staff members.
In 1998, George was working as casual laborer in Migori.
That year, he began experiencing persistent fevers and headaches. Without his knowledge, George’s employer had him tested for HIV and the results indicated that he was HIV+. He was abruptly laid off without being told why.
Unemployed, it was difficult for George to support his family – a wife and a daughter who had just started school. His wife gave birth to a son in 2000. That year George’s health problems escalated as he developed chronic diarrhea and felt progressively weaker.
Believing that the diarrhea was amoebiasis, he spent as much as 200 ksh (about U.S. 3.00) per week on herbal treatment, but it did not help. Some members of his family suggested that the condition was caused by chira. In the Luo culture chira means a curse. That year George had planted crops before his parents, which is considered taboo. They consulted a magician to get rid of the curse, but despite following the magician’s instructions, George’s health did not improve.
Their next recourse was to seek treatment at a private hospital. He was put on IV fluids, which helped him somewhat, but unfortunately they did not have enough money to keep him at the hospital. He was moved to a church to recuperate. His condition deteriorated. Adding to his physical afflictions, he suffered another blow when his wife deserted him, taking their children with her. In 2003 George received more painful news. He learned that his son had died the year before; although he did not know it at the time, his son had been HIV positive from birth.
The constant search for cures at expensive private hospitals and maverick magicians began to take their toll. George’s condition worsened and everyone around him seemed to have lost hope. His family even began to prepare for his funeral. Clinging to hope, George made one final desperate request. He wanted to be taken to Migori District Hospital (MDH). He was crippled and weak; his weight was a mere 35kg and he could no longer walk and was carried in his brother’s arms to the hospital.
During his admission at MDH, George made a momentous decision and asked for a HIV test. With his mother and brother at his side, George was told he was HIV positive. The news was a relief; he finally knew what his condition was.
After discharge from hospital, George returned home and told the rest of his family about his status: “I am dying from something that can be treated! We have wasted all of our money on magicians and herbs! I have HIV.” The family’s reaction was grim: apart from his mother and younger brother, everyone else shunned him.
Now that he knew what his condition was, George wanted to do something about it. He had heard about antiretrovirals (ARVs) so he made inquiries about them. At that time, ARV treatment in Nyanza Province was only available at the Provincial Hospital in Kisumu and at the District Hospital in Homa Bay. Determined to get on treatment, George made his way to Homa Bay Hospital and by February 2003 he was started on ARVs.
The nurse who was treating George referred him to a patient support group. George could hardly believe such a group existed. This group of strangers accepted him as he was when his own family would not.
George went public about his status on World AIDS Day in 2004. His public declaration and testimony was heard by the District Commissioner and Health Officials, and the public. From then on, George was invited to attend and participate in stakeholders’ meetings.
George continued to further his knowledge in HIV treatment and care. He went for training in Nairobi and was certified in Voluntary Counseling and Testing (VCT).
ARV treatment had been introduced at MDH in 2005, and George’s career began in 2006 when he became the first volunteer at the hospital; his job as an expert patient entailed “fishing for people” and convincing them to go for testing and treatment. “Over 600 people came in for testing and care because they saw me near death and then saw me come back to life.”
FACES began supporting HIV services at MDH in 2007. George was recruited, trained, and hired as a Clinical and Community Health Assistant (CCHA). George was a dedicated worker; it was his personal mission to increase the number of people in care and treatment. Within 10 months he was promoted to the CCHA Coordinator at Rongo District Hospital.
This promotion meant moving away which could compromise his health. His health was delicate; in addition to ARVs, he was on other medications and a strict nutritional plan for his co-morbidities. His mother was his devoted caretaker. Nevertheless, he accepted the post and took up his new responsibilities.
While working as the Rongo CCHA Coordinator, George met a young widow, Judith, a FACES CCHA. She was HIV positive and a mother to 2 children. They are now happily married.
George has triumphed. His CD4 count, once as low as 2, is now 1008. He manages a large staff across 9 sites. His acceptance and outspokenness about HIV has inspired the community to test for HIV, know their status, and enroll in care. He has travelled internationally to talk about his experience with HIV. This is a remarkable feat for a man who has coped with over 10 years of severe HIV-related illnesses that has nearly robbed him of his life several times.