David Patient – “If I’m going to die, let me die; and if I’m going to live, let me live.”
I am one of the longest medically documented HIV survivors in the world.
I’ve been studied by all the who’s who in HIV as to why I’ve lived as long as I have.
I was born in Zambia in 1961. I was given up for adoption because my mother was unable to raise a baby. My adopted family moved to South Africa when Zambia finally gained independence. I was 6.
In 1979 I left Apartheid South Africa because there was a warrant for my arrest issued by the SA Bureau of State of Security – the apartheid government’s secret police.
I ended up in the USA, where I lived for the next 16 years. I now live in Mpumalanga, South Africa.
When I turned 22 in March 1983, I was given 6 months to live.
I returned to South Africa in 1995 to do what I could to help the people here. In those days less than 1% of the population had HIV. When I came over with my partner, Neil Orr, we started advocating.
Screaming and shouting we tried to draw people’s attention to the HIV issue. Since South Africa was newly democratic, there were many social issues that needed to be addressed. HIV was merely one aspect.
For the last 20 – 22 years, we spent 40-50% of our time working in rural communities, educating people around health and germ theory.
The problem with the whole apartheid black education system is that it was not conducive to things like science and math. Black students were taught the absolute basics.
For example, when I’d go into rural communities and ask a young woman to explain to me what her menstrual cycle is, what’s actually going on a biological level, she would have absolutely no clue how it happens.
We had to strip down all of the wisdom we wanted to share, and basically strip it down to the bare basics. We created a very experiential learning process so people had insights into how their body works.
Once the basics were in place, then we could talk about things like germ theory, the transmission of viruses, HIV, TB, sexually-transmitted infections, and that kind of stuff.
What we noticed when we went into communities was that the communities had so many other top priorities. Through a process inspired by Ken Wilber and spiral dynamics, we found entry levels into their paradigm, and we operated within that paradigm to help solve social problems, earn trust, and build relationships.
When we go into a rural community we can’t come in with science. We also can’t come in with a pre-hypothesis that people have a clue about what we’re talking about.
The entry point is, “What are your needs? What does your community need? How can we support you in getting that?” It’s a hand-up, not a hand-out.
I’ll give you a very real example. We were hired by a company called CC Africa, now known as andBeyond. They operate about 35 luxury lodges around the world. They asked us to go and work with the Maasai tribe up in Kenya and Tanzania where they have 7 or 8 camps. It’s a 10-day training and an amazing organization.
When we arrived up there, they invited half of their staff and then half of the people from the villages where their staff comes from. We had a contingent of about 150 Maasai warriors and their partners.
We were there to teach nutrition, how to grow vegetables, how to increase your body’s sustainability, and build your immune function through nutritional aspects.
About 4 hours into the process, the head tribesman comes up to us and says, “This is all very fascinating. There’s one minor problem. We as the Maasai people do not eat food. We do not eat solids.”
I said, “Okay, what do you eat?”
They replied, “What we eat is the blood from the cow,” which they bleed. They don’t kill the cow. They just bleed the cow.
“Then we mix it with milk either from the cow or from the goat, and that’s the only form of sustenance,” other than eating berries and stuff like that when they are hunter-gathering.
We said, “Okay, we need to rethink our entire strategy.”
Neil and I went for a walk. We went down to one of the villages where we saw how the Maasai people lived.
Looking from the outside inward, the first set of housing are the women and the children. Then the elders of the village. Then after that the tribal leadership, and then, deep inside the interior of the corral, that’s where the cows are kept.
Clearly their top priority are the cows. In fact, the Maasai believe that all cows belong to them, so when they’re accused of stealing they say, “We’re not stealing. We’re simply bringing the cows home again.”
We identified the fact that cows are very important to them. We said, “Okay, fine. How about we teach you how to give maximum health benefits to your cows using nutrition for your cows and your goats?”
They loved the idea because we were working within their paradigm.
Two days later, the same tribe leader came up to me and said, “This has been the most incredible process. We knew nothing of any of this stuff. If the cows and the goats benefited, do you think the women and the children will benefit from this?”
We said, “Absolutely,” and we had the hotel where we stayed put on a buffet.
We invited all the women and children from the local villages around the camp.
The women and children came, and they ate solid foods for the first time. Things like corn salad, cole slaw, really good nutritious healthy food, a simple spread but nice enough for them to get an idea of what solid food tasted like.
Obviously within a couple of hours there were huge queues at the toilets.
The next day, lunchtime rolled around and guess who showed up from the village? All the women and children. They came for lunch again.
By day 5, the tribal leadership came to us again and said, “The women and children say that this food stuff you’ve been feeding them is absolutely remarkable. If the cows and the goats benefit, and the women and the children benefit, do you think we as men will benefit from this process?”
We said, “Absolutely,” and we had the hotel put on another spread.
It was the same story. They ate and then all lined up at the toilets.
By around day 7 or 8, the men’s stomachs had all settled down and they were absolutely blown away by how they felt. They felt better and had more stamina.
The men said to their wives, “You must start growing vegetables for the family and for the animals.”
In Maasai culture, women are secondary citizens. Anything they do, or anything they generate, is not seen to add any value to the overall tribal system. It’s a polygamous society where land is designated to all their wives.
The men said to the women, “any income you generate as a result of growing the vegetables and selling them onto the various lodges in the Maasai Mara and in the Serengeti, you get to keep.”
The women grew so many vegetables that they had a surplus and started selling it into the lodges.
We went back 18 months later to follow up when they started the first clinic ever in a Maasai village. Complete with a clinician that flew in from Nairobi once a week to provide primary healthcare.
Another 18 months later, now 3 years down the road, they started a bee-keeping program. The Maasai make incredible honey from wild bees.
A year later, now at about year 4 – 4.5, they had a day-old chick program where they bought chickens at one day old, grew them for 21 days and then sold them to the lodges.
The women got to keep all the money.
For the first time in Maasai history, the women became economically empowered and economically active.
It changed the entire dynamic of the tribe.
We also taught the Maasai yoga.
We couldn’t call it yoga because it doesn’t fit within their paradigm.
We referred to the yoga exercises we taught as a lymph drainage system. Movement to get all the healthy cells out of the lymph glands, into their bloodstream so that they could do their job in their immune system.
That’s a very real example of how we work within people’s paradigms to support them getting the knowledge we want to give without going up to them and saying, “You dumb savage, what are you doing? You’re killing yourself. You’re killing your family.”
That’s the work that we’ve been doing for 20 years. I think that’s really what sets myself and my partner, Neil Orr, apart from most of these programs.
We work with the Center for Disease Control, University of Washington, University of San Francisco, CAPS program. Everything we do is scientifically based and backed.
We won an international award from the British government for eco-sustainability development in rural communities.
The key in all of this that yoga taught me from a spiritual perspective is to start where people are and not where you think they should be.
Move forward to August last year.
I had a colonoscopy, and doctors discovered I have diverticulitis and complications in my colon. At this point, I’m on the paleo diet and I’m eating nothing but nuts, and berries, and fruits, and seeds, and all that other stuff, eating like a damn squirrel, all the things that I shouldn’t be eating.
I just finished my 14th treatment for bacterial infection. Unfortunately the super-bugs are becoming highly resistant to all the medical options I have open to me.
Currently, I’m on my second to last drug. I only have one more drug available.
They’re going to go in and they’re going to do what my physician for my surgery coined a ‘car wash’ inside your system to wash you out. They’re going to basically take care of any abscesses they can find. They are then going to re-position the stoma from the left hand abdominal area to the right hand abdominal area.
They won’t be able to close my stomach back up. They are putting me in a medically induced coma for anywhere from 10 days to possibly up to as much as four weeks.
My stomach will be exposed the whole time, which is obviously going to leave me vulnerable to potential infections.
As scary as it is, and considering all the risk involved, I really don’t have another choice.
I’m kind of backed up against the wall. Yet, there’s a part of me that’s excited about it.
I’ve been laid up in a 45 degree angle for the past 8 months. I literally am on a bed or a couch and that’s what my life has become. From somebody who was clocking 100,000 air miles a year in air travel to sitting on a couch watching cooking shows.
My sense of identity has really been questioned.
My sense of participation in my life with my partner and our businesses, in our business interests and in our community work. All that stuff has been put on hold and honestly, I’m quite tired of the limbo.
If I’m going to die, let me die; and if I’m going to live, let me live.
I can’t stand this limbo state anymore. I have to do something.
It was the same kind of way I approached HIV.
It’s like, you’re in my body. You’re not who I am.
I am not HIV. My body has HIV.
The same for my situation I’m dealing with right now.
My body has all these complications, but I, David Patient, do not have those complications.
In other words, my soul is not infected or affected.
To be continued…
1st part of the David Patient interview series with Mark Kalina M.D., Dawn Morningstar, & Hung Tran. Edited by Dawn Morningstar.
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Photo credit: David Patient.