Why we're there: A touching account from South Africa (Part 1)

Following the interest in our series relating to access to medicines engagement on Parliament Hill, Access to Medicines, I wanted to share this moving, personal account by Rob Friedman, a Lilly colleague who recently visited South Africa.

Rob Friedman.jpgToday's guest blog is from Rob Friedman, senior director of executive communications. Rob describes his first-hand encounter with people afflicted with tuberculosis in poverty-stricken areas of South Africa. This is the first of two blogs underscoring the importance of our corporate responsibility efforts alongside partners in economically challenged areas of the world. The second blog will appear next week.

I saw the face of death today.

We were at the Fort Grey TB hospital, outside a squatter camp in East London, South Africa. I'd never seen a squatter camp--a kaleidoscope of makeshift shacks made of every material imaginable--scrap metal, plastic, wood, cardboard, rocks, bricks, mud. No electricity or sewers, few toilets, little-to-no clean drinking water. Piles of garbage border the camp. Some 30,000 people survive there.

At the hospital entrance, we were stopped by a gate with armed guards. They took down the serial numbers of our computers, to make sure when we left we wouldn't be taking anything extra.

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We were there to see firsthand Lilly's work on multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, known as MDR-TB, and to shoot video of the hospital, staff, and patients to help illustrate what we do.

Long, low concrete buildings served as wards, divided by sexes. We wore surgical masks, but I'll admit to some anxiety--the thought occurred that since TB is airborne, I had a better chance of contracting it than HIV.

We interviewed several men; some were from as far as 700 kilometers­­--more than 400 miles--away. If the patient were the main breadwinner, it was very dislocating for the family. But even more so for the patients, as families were not allowed to visit.

Then we entered the women's ward and the camera crew set up. This always feels intrusive, but it's the only way to capture the human voices and stories.

A volunteer brought over a patient, who sat in a plastic chair in front of the camera. Her name was Phumla. She was 28--I'd have guessed 19 or 20--small and thin, with tight braids and luminous, brown eyes. That's all we could see, because the rest of her face was hidden behind a mask to prevent further spread of this dreaded, preventable disease.

Phumla and her sister were first admitted to the hospital three years before with TB, but both had responded to treatment and were sent home. Phumla was a model patient and strictly adhered to her difficult treatment regimen. Her sister, though, did not follow through on her prescribed treatment, and her disease evolved into XDR-TB--extremely difficult to treat--and Phumla contracted the XDR form from her.

Both sisters were readmitted to the hospital three months ago. We interviewed Phumla on Friday. Her sister had died on Tuesday.

'I want to be cured. I want to go home'

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Phumla was devastated by the loss. Her answers to the interviewer's questions were hopeful, but her eyes didn't show hope. Her English was unsure, but when she spoke Xhosa--her native tongue--she spoke with authority. When the interviewer asked her what she wished for, however, her English was unmistakable: "I want to be cured. I want to go home."


I didn't hear what she said next, because I was crying. My older daughter turns 27 this summer.

I won't downplay the pain of this experience or how overwhelming the problems seem, but I take comfort from the resolve of the hospital's staff and volunteers to beat this disease and help patients. The hospital's doctor and manager is passionate and determined. And she sees progress. When the clinic first opened, she said, "They were dying by the thousands," due to tests that took six-to-eight weeks to provide results and long waiting lists. "Now, we get results within 48 hours, and two-to-four days after diagnosis, they are starting treatment."

What keeps her doing such difficult work? "Seeing someone who had arrived bedridden but was motivated to get better--then seeing them years later back in their community, healthy and strong. These are our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, colleagues--it could be us at any point. So I have a strong desire to see the burden of TB reduced."

I also take hope and pride in what Lilly is doing to help people like Phumla and reduce their number--attacking the problems from multiple angles with the help of global and local partners through the Lilly MDR-TB Partnership. While my first thought on seeing the enormity of the challenges of providing health care to the poor in South Africa was, "Where do you even start?" after seeing our work in action, I thought, "How can you not?"

I will never be the same.

Friedman was part of a small team that traveled to South Africa in May to document and share stories about the Lilly MDR-TB Partnership, the Lilly NCD Partnership, and volunteers through our Connecting Hearts Abroad program. The patient named in this article, Phumla, approved sharing her story. Friedman writes speeches for John Lechleiter, Ph.D., chairman, president, and CEO, who has long championed Lilly's corporate responsibility efforts--which are increasingly linked to our core business of improving global health. In Part II, scheduled for publication around June 19, Friedman will look at rural and urban poverty and what Lilly and its partners are doing to provide care.