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Love with care at AIDS haven
Updated: 2005-08-03 13:49

"I need to make more money to buy nutrients for her and to put aside some cash for my son who had to quit middle school and who is not trained for any job," he says.

With free treatment for his wife, Ding now feels money may be less of an issue after all.

"We're on very good terms with the doctors and nurses. In the evenings, we often play cards together," he says.

Ding says he never used to be able to remember his wife's birthday until last year. "We were both caught by surprise when all the doctors and nurses crowded into the room and reminded me it was my wife's birthday."

Ding says that for the first time in her life, his wife was given a bouquet of flowers and had candles lit for her on a birthday cake. "She was as excited as a child. She sang songs to thank everyone and we both cried in the end. After that day, she had smiles on her face again."

A pioneering AIDS activist, Guo says he feels both contented and troubled with the events of the past year.

"I'm so happy to see the patients feel at home here," he says. "As long as I'm still at the job, I'll do whatever I can to make it thrive."

Renovation of the former SARS wards into an AIDS community cost 1.5 million yuan which the hospital raised itself. "The patients' treatment and medication are financed by the government, and the hospital pays for their lodging," he says.

Relocation of the hospital's AIDS wards, however, led to praise and criticism throughout China.

Although officials with the Shanxi Provincial Health Department praised Guo's move as a "courageous" and "effective" attempt in building an AIDS community, many others criticized him for intentionally differentiating between AIDS patients and others.

An article on www.tom.com, a leading Chinese Internet portal, reported that China's most outspoken AIDS campaigner Gao Yaojie was critical of the move. Gao was one of the first physicians to bring AIDS to public attention in China.

"It's wrong and discriminatory to isolate AIDS patients from others," Gao, 78, was quoted by Tom.com as saying.

Gao says the practice adopted by health authorities in Central China's Henan Province was better. "At what we call the 'Sunshine Homes' in many AIDS-hit villages there, the patients get free treatment at local clinics without having to leave home," Gao was quoted as saying.

Henan, a largely agricultural province with a population of 93 million, had the country's worst AIDS outbreak when a large number of poor farmers were infected by the HIV virus when selling blood to illegal dealers in the years before 1995. Official statistics reveal that 11,844 people have been confirmed HIV-positive in the province, and 2,026 children have been orphaned by the death of AIDS-infected parents.

As many hospitals refuse to operate on HIV carriers, some patients try to conceal their disease in order to get timely treatment. "This increases the risk for HIV transmission in operating rooms," Guo says.

According to National Ministry of Health figures, there are 840,000 HIV carriers on the Chinese mainland, of whom 80,000 suffer from AIDS. An assessment report on China's AIDS prevention and control released by the ministry last year showed HIV cases have now been reported in every one of the Chinese mainland's 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities.

Guo says he had decided to relocate the AIDS wards to avoid cross-infections from tuberculosis and hepatitis patients who were also in the infectious diseases hospital. Many AIDS victims actually die from other infections rather than HIV, he says.

"Many AIDS patients at our hospital's headquarters dared not to go out, for the fear that they might bump into someone they knew. Green Harbor is away from public attention and they feel more at ease here where everyone is equal," he says.

According to the hospital's statistics, seven AIDS patients died between 2002 - the year the hospital received the first case - and mid-2004. Green Harbor, founded in July 2004, has received more than 80 patients to date, only two of whom have died.

"AIDS treatment is more than medication," Guo says. "Affection, care, moderate exercises and psychotherapy are equally important. These are what Green Harbor is offering while most traditional hospitals cannot."

After Green Harbor was established, Guo and his colleagues also began working to dispel local people's fear of AIDS.

"We received a cold welcome when we first moved here," says Qiao Jiping, manager of the ward. "Barbers in the village refused to cut the hair of patients and even storekeepers didn't dare to let the patients in, fearing they would lose all their other customers."

But when they saw how little the difference was between the patients and themselves and how fast many of them recuperated and left, most villagers became less scared. Some even dropped in by for a brief visit from time to time.

Today, four doctors and seven nurses work full-time at Green Harbor, all on their own initiative.

"Before the AIDS community was established, the management of the hospital asked if anyone would voluntarily work here. To our surprise, almost everyone asked to come," says Qiao. "So we selected the best. They're all on very good terms with the patients."

The cozy environment has not just helped the patients recuperate, but taught them to love and care for others as well.

Earlier this year, China's Red Cross received a letter from Linfen: "We're AIDS patients being treated at the Green Harbor AIDS Community ... We want to make our humble contributions to the people affected by the recent Indian Ocean tsunami," it read. Twenty-one patients chipped in, donating 20 yuan each.

Guo says the donation, a voluntary act, had moved him to tears.

When asked about the future of his AIDS community, Guo says he would like to expand the wards to accommodate more patients and to send all staff members to Beijing for intensive training on AIDS treatment and prevention.

"I have yet another dream," he says. "If China sets up a surgical center exclusively for AIDS patients some day, I'll open a surgical ward at Green Harbor, too."

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