Heerabai is one of the women who made her way to CRHP as a patient but has now become a member of the CRHP community as a staff member at the Mabelle Arole Rehabilitation Center. Heerabai was born in nearby village, Rajuri, but she received no education growing up. Heerabai became part of our community eleven years ago after receiving a diagnosis of HIV and suffering from the social and personal complications that followed.
Heerabai’s husband became ill first and was eventually diagnosed with HIV, but he delayed telling his wife. Heerabai’s husband did not reveal his HIV status to her until he had no choice but to go to the government hospital to receive treatment. However, as the community became aware that he was seeking treatment for HIV, Heerabai was also subjected to the social stigmas and misconceptions surrounding the disease. Soon after her husband began seeking treatment, Heerabai too began developing the symptoms of HIV. Despite suffering from a stigmatized illness, Heerabai’s husband was still considered a valuable member of the community. Heerabai, on the other hand, was poorly treated, received little treatment, and was often not allowed to interact with her children. When Heerabai was allowed to interact with her children, she was forced to always maintain a separation, sleeping head to toe because her family believed that HIV could be airborne.
Isolated from her family and bared from work opportunities, Heerabai was dejected and unsure how to move forward. Fortunately, Heerabai’s story became known to a Village Health Worker who began encouraging her to explore the opportunities available at CRHP. Dr. Raj Arole offered Heerabai a job in the mess hall. Her position in the mess hall was not only an opportunity for work but was also a means of demonstrating to her community that a doctor trusted her to prepare food, something that her family thought she was unfit to do because of her HIV status. After a few months with CRHP, Heerabai’s father-in law came to take her back to their village because he was concerned the wider community would become aware of her HIV status, and the family would be shamed. Back in her village, Heerabai became depressed and soon after her return, her husband passed away. Her family-in-law began once again to treat her poorly, insisting she be separated from her children. She suffered from violence at the hands of her in-laws, so she took her children and returned to her mother’s village.
Within her mother’s village, misconceptions and stigmas surrounding HIV lead her to continue to avoid seeking treatment. At that time, doctors were often afraid to treat people with HIV. Heerabai became even more isolated as she avoided talking to people, going to family functions, or even visiting her temple, fearing the responses of people who misunderstood her illness. Without treatment, Heerabai began developing lesions and infections, and she finally came to CRHP for treatment. After having been sent to a private hospital where treatment was infective, Dr. Raj decided to send Heerabai to Mumbai every 15 days to receive a new method of treatment. She continued to receive treatment in this way for five years, completely supported by CRHP.
Dr. Raj told Heerabai that she could kiss her children without fear of spreading HIV. He also told her to take a CRHP car, get dressed up, and to get groceries as a way of showing people that she was healthy and trusted with responsibilities, despite her HIV status. Heerabai’s stigmatized status made it difficult to find a husband for her daughter, and her daughter married a man who had previously been married. Heerabai felt guilty that her disease was affecting her children. However, as part of the CRHP community Heerabai’s children were celebrated throughout the Jamkhed community during their marriages. Heerabai’s son’s wedding was a grand affair, with politicians, Village Health Workers, CRHP staff, foreigners, and many family members and neighbors in attendance. Heerabai was very happy that her disease was no longer a factor that negatively impacted her family and that her son’s marriage had been celebrated by all.
Heerabai has now moved to the Rehabilitation Center, where she has found a second life. She has learned skills such as gardening, managing a plant nursery, and organic farming techniques. Heerabai has gained not only economic stability but also the peace of mind that comes with being part of a community that treats her kindly. Heerabai said she feels normal at the Rehabilitation Center because the other people there allowed her to meet their children and encouraged her to show people that she was healthy. The confidence and health that she has developed has encouraged her family to begin treating her with more respect. She is no longer discriminated against, and she regularly attends family functions. Heerabai never hesitates to discuss HIV with other community members and will always share her advice. Even Heerabai’s family sometimes comes to her for advice. Heerabai receives regular treatment and has gained the confidence that she is competent to do productive, meaningful work. She now shares her story to help others and fight the stigma surrounding misunderstood diseases such as HIV.