Thursday, June 19, 2014

In Memory of Thomas

Earlier today, I received a phone call with some bad news. Thomas, a boy I knew up in Musoma, had succumbed to illness and died earlier this morning.

I met Thomas in early 2012, shortly after we arrived in Tanzania. The town of Musoma is where we went to language school, and it’s also the town where fellow missioner Liz Mach and Maryknoll Sister Marion Hughes live. Every two weeks, a group of HIV+ children (called Lisa’s Pride) gather at Sr. Marion’s house to play games, to do a weigh-in, and to receive basic food stuffs that helps keep their immune systems strong. While we lived in Musoma, we would try to make it out to as many sessions as we could, and that’s where we met Thomas.

First of all, Thomas was charming. He had a great smile. He was smart and quick to laugh. And he was a little dude. I thought he was 9 or 10 at first, but when you spoke with him, he seemed older. That’s because he was; his health issues had stunted his growth and kept him at a size very small relative to his age. He was a teenager and must have been 15 or 16 by now.

As should be obvious by his membership in Lisa’s Pride, Thomas was HIV+. I don’t know the story of how he was infected. He was also deaf, but he wasn’t born that way. When he was younger, he got malaria and received an overdose of his medication and lost his hearing as a result. Yet, he could still hear a little so he could hold a conversation with you- in Swahili or in English. And he could read lips- in Swahili or in English. I told you, he was smart.

After 3 months, we moved down to Mwanza, but for our first Christmas in Tanzania, we went back up to Musoma to spend a few days with Liz and Sr. Marion. We also went to assist with a big shopping trip where the kids from Lisa’s Pride got to pick out clothes for themselves. It was a lot of fun, and Thomas was around, of course. The day of the shopping trip was also my 36th birthday, so Katie baked me a cake. Thomas helped her light the candles, and then he brought the cake out to me as everyone sang “Happy Birthday.”

Sadly, that was the last time I saw him. We haven’t been up to Musoma in a year and a half. But I always asked about him, and I hear that he would still ask about me from time to time. I know Thomas liked me a lot, but I won’t say I had a particularly special relationship with him, because he liked everybody. But clearly, Thomas had a special place in my heart.

I’m not sure what happened, but he had evidently been sick for a while and had been in and out of the hospital. He was recently released because he was doing really well…and then he died. That’s what HIV/AIDS does: weakens your immune system until some secondary infection gets you.

I feel like I should take this opportunity to rally support for AIDS research and funding for ARVs, but I’m not sure what to say at this moment. We should take a “big picture” approach to tackling the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but today I’m taking the “small view.” I’m just mourning the death of a child…my friend, Thomas. 


Christy Berry King said...

You know what a special place I have in my heart for HIV/AIDS patients as my father was one. As a hemophiliac he took IV clotting factor which was literally his "life blood". He was infected after receiving a bad batch of clotting factor...the very thing intended to save his life. I grew up watching my father battle HIV before there were ARVs...only AZT. This is what drove my passion for my high school science fair project, and why I drove to UMC in Jackson three days a week after school to conduct research in their virology lab. I am happy about the advances we have made in HIV/AIDS research, but there is still more to be done. It is sad that we have effective ARVs today and yet there are Thomas' all over who do not have access to them. I am sorry for the loss of your friend and I appreciate you taking the time to memorialize him in such a touching way. Thank you for what you do and for the passion and compassion with which you do it. --Christy Berry King

Unknown said...

This is Tony Cataldo, Sr. Marion's nephew and my wife is the "Lisa" behind "Lisa's Pride". Myself and my two children met Thomas on our visit to Africa last July. He was kind, gentle and so appreciative of everything. When we went on a bus trip with Lisa's Pride he asked if he could hold my camera and case. I was tentative at first as the camera was not mine but he held onto it as if it were made of gold! That is the way he dealt with life as well..held onto it as if it was the most valuable part of his world. He was truly one of my favorite members. We made a special trip to his house before we left and gave him two ties for his interviews at college. He asked my son to come back to Africa at Christmas and come stay with him. He amazed me with his intelligence and he clearly loved life. I am so sad to know that he is gone but I am a better person for knowing and meeting him. Thomas will always have a special place in my heart.
-- Tony

RETA said...

I "happened" upon your BlogSpot and am very touched by your story. You have shared a bit of his life with us - and even though he passed . . . he is touching our lives through your writing. Thank you for this.


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