A Long Walk

“Thank you for coming to visit me,” she said to me.

“My pleasure,” I responded.

Then she told me, “I left my family and home in Zimbabwe to come to South Africa. I didn’t know where else to go for treatment.”

As I sat by her bedside, in a hospital corridor filled with at least 20 more stretchers, I looked at her. Her body was frail, yet her eyes carried a certain determination and strength. This is the story of Virginia (name changed to protect privacy), a Zimbabwean woman who was HIV-positive. I met Virginia at a residential treatment center for destitute women in Johannesburg, South Africa. She had lived with her adult son in Zimbabwe, but decided to come to South Africa once she became ill because they could not afford treatment. Virginia left everything behind because she had heard that the center could help her access treatment. After coming to the residential treatment center, Virginia’s health deteriorated and she was admitted to the hospital. Virginia’s journey to access healthcare is more common than we would like to think.

On October 23rd, a team of global health graduate students and I walked 50 kilometers for the Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders’ (MSF) Walk Without Borders. We walked in solidarity with those who have to travel long distances to access medical treatment. Our team was able to fundraise over $5,000 for MSF because of our very supportive network of sponsors and fundraisers. We hiked along the Bruce Trail, starting in Grimsby, and walked to Niagara Falls. As we approached the halfway mark, a friend asked me, “Why are you doing this walk, Amber?” I recounted Virginia’s story and told him that Virginia’s resilience served as an inspiration to me. As I reflected further, I realized that the term ‘solidarity’ didn’t encompass the true nature of our walk. This walk meant more to me than an opportunity to fundraise for MSF.

This walk was easy in comparison to the long journeys taken by refugees, patients, and others seeking safety or healthcare. Our 50-kilometer walk seemed challenging at times, but was only a fraction of the distance that people like Virginia travelled. I was also surrounded by encouraging peers who motivated each other to keep going even when it seemed difficult. People like Virginia have no such support system. She travelled alone and navigated a foreign healthcare system without her family. Meeting Virginia and hearing her story was very humbling for me. She showed strength and optimism even in the most difficult of times—something I hope to draw from as I move forward in my global health education.

(Written by Amber Purewal / Image Source)