Full of Grace

Sisters in Kerala care for those living with AIDS

text and photographs by Peter Lemieux

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A passerby does not happen upon Grace Home. Set back off a narrow, unmarked country road, the home is sheltered by fencing. Only a small dust-covered plaque identifies the building by its former name, Mar Kundukulam Memorial Research and Rehabilitation Complex. Its long, dirt driveway meanders through dense palms and shrubs — well out of earshot and eyesight of the nearby bustling city of Trichur. When hailed, most tuk-tuk drivers in Trichur do not know the place, and those who do might just as well turn down a potential fare. When asked, most locals cannot offer directions with confidence.

But for the Nirmala Dasi Sisters who operate Grace Home, the low profile is just fine — in fact the location of the home for children and adults living with H.I.V./AIDS is intentional.

“We took in AIDS patients in Pullazhi [12 miles west of Trichur] and it caused a great deal of trouble when the local population became aware,” recalls Msgr. Joseph Vilangadan, the 85-year-old founder of the society. “So we moved the program to Grace Home and keep it quiet to avoid problems.”

However, on this Tuesday morning, not unlike most other mornings, life inside the halls of the three-story building — built with funds donated by CNEWA — is anything but quiet.

Some 32 H.I.V.-positive children — all orphaned or abandoned by their families — ready themselves for the day with a vigor that matches any exhibited by healthy youngsters their age.

In the dining area of the men’s hall, the children devour the rice and curry breakfast that Sister Elsamma Ettumanukaran has served. They tease each other until adult patients sharing the table lose patience and intervene.

In the women’s hall, girls jockey for position in front of the communal mirror. A girl smiles as she finesses her school uniform into place; another angles in for a closer look. Standing behind them, Sister Jessy Neelamparambil helps tie pigtails. At 23, she’s the youngest of the five Nirmala Dasi Sisters who staff Grace Home. Liberated from the mirror’s magnetic force, others in the adjacent dormitory play music, sing and dance.

Away from the commotion, Sister Lisi Valloppally is hard at work in the walk-in closet next to her office, which serves as a makeshift pharmacy. A nurse, she lays out a row of white plastic pill bottles alongside their corresponding red caps, each labeled with a child’s name handwritten on medical tape. With focused attention, the nurse then drops the appropriate tablets into each bottle, one by one. A simple enough task, it is not to be taken lightly. The medicine is antiretroviral therapy (ARTs) that, when coupled with good nutrition and proper health care, bolsters the immune system and helps contain the lethal virus.

“We don’t know what they will catch tomorrow. At anytime, we can expect sickness,” says Sister Lisi, who has served as the home’s resident nurse for the past three years. Last year, she cared for two girls, ages 14 and 15, who succumbed to secondary infections.

“We’re monitoring them every day, and every six months we check CD4 counts [a blood test that indicates the severity of infection],” continues Sister Lisi. “We can’t make a positive child become negative. But with these ARTs, we can extend their life.”

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