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Travel Journal: One by One, the Young Come with Full-Blown AIDS

 "We're seeing the ravages of AIDS like we've never seen before."

That's Echo.

"Just when I think I'll not be shocked or surprised by the disease, we have a day like this."

That's Harry.

"What are we going to do? Give his mom a Bible so she can read parts about Jesus before he dies."

That's 6-year-old Luke.

The Luke Commission bush clinics are in full swing every other day 2 to 3 hours from home base in Manzini, Swaziland. Each clinic is in a remote area untouched by normal medical care. Stories abound. Some are happy, more are sad. All are real. All remind us that "Except for the grace of God, there go I."

As we remember that Swaziland has the highest AIDS rate in the world, let us look inside one mobile clinic.

"We only saw 300 patients today," Echo said, "but it felt like 500, because everyone was so sick."

One young man brought in the back of a pickup was 25 years old. Two months earlier, he had come home sick. Withered like an old man, he was bleeding from the mouth.

"When I talked to his mom, she cried," Echo said. "We don't usually see Swazis cry. We sat down beside an outhouse to capture a little shade from the building. It was so hot and dry."

Luke and Sipho (Echo's medical translator) sat with them. "He's going to die," Echo said. "If he were my son, I'd take him home and make him as comfortable as possible. Nothing can be done."

This same mom had already lost her husband and 2 of her 10 children to HIV / AIDS.

"If I do not take him to a hospital, everyone will talk about me and say I didn't do enough for him." the mom replied.

"I knew I had to be sensitive to this cultural belief that a hospital could help," Echo said. She put a tarp in the back of her vehicle so the young man could lie down. Then Echo, the VanderWal triplets, another translator Victor, and the man's mom set off in search of a small nearby hospital.

"When we arrived, it was closed," Echo explained. "Victor found a stretcher and with one boy at each corner and Victor on the 4th corner, we pushed our way into that small building.

"We did not have a camera. I'll just have the imprint of our boys carrying that dying man in my memory, but it will stay with me for years to come."

There Echo encountered the "kindest doctor I've met in Swaziland. He was young and not yet burned out."

The doctor told Echo that AIDS patients for whom nothing could be done were brought to him every day. "Anymore, I don't tell their loved ones that the hospital won't do any good. I just admit the dying patients, because it's important to their families."

Pleading with Echo for help, the young doctor continued: "The medical textbooks need to be rewritten about AIDS. The devastation is so great that no health care community can deal with it. Swazis go to the witchdoctors first. Who's going to give health care some direction in light of the HIV crisis?"

Echo noted, "Before we left, I heard the death rattle in that young man. He probably lived a few hours at most."

Back at the mobile clinic, the next patient in line was a 23-year-old woman in a wheelbarrow. She was in the end stages of AIDS with maybe a month left of her earthly life.

"She looked like a pile of bones," Harry said. "All day this was the situation we faced."

Older Swazis volunteer to be tested for HIV by The Luke Commission team, Harry noticed, but the young people are afraid to find out if they have "bad blood."

Echo said patient after patient "who were my age would sit down in front of me and look worse than 75-year-olds."

Gaunt and thin and bedraggled, the patients had sores all over their bodies and in their mouths. They were sick with dizziness, fatigue, coughing, and infections. Many had tuberculosis, which is easily contracted with the HIV virus.

"We can relieve some of their symptoms and pains with our medications, but they'll only work for awhile," said Harry.

What is the happy part in any of these stories?

Those who are sick and dying hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, some for the first time, and realize that God's love for them goes beyond death and suffering. Jesus just asks for their hearts and minds - a gift they can give Him when all else is lost and hopeless.

Jesus told us in Matthew 21 that believing prayer can move mountains. As we lift up The Luke Commission in prayer this week, may the mountain that this dreaded disease has become be moved aside to let the Light of the world shine into the souls of our brothers and sisters in Swaziland.

Janet Tuinstra for Harry and Echo and the boys

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