By Harriette A. Onyalla
HE didnâ€™t want to die! He implored God to give him five more years. Dr. Stephen Watiti had developed AIDS. He didnâ€™twant to die and leave his young daughter.
â€œShe is only four years. Her mother died. If I die too, she will be all alone,â€ he pleaded with his creator.
The Almighty heard and Watiti was healthy for five years after his wife, Margaretâ€™s death. Then his health began failing as if to remind him his time was up. That was in 1999.
This time, his prayer was feeble. As he lay on his sickbed agonising, he feared to ask. Yet looking at his nine-year-old daughter, something stirred inside, if only God could grant him another five years, he would explain to their daughter what happened and take her to a boarding school.
â€œBut in 2000, I knew the end had come. I was having TB for the fourth time. I also had Kaposiâ€™s sarcoma, a cancer, which is common with HIV, and cryptoccocal meningitis.â€
As a doctor, Watiti knew he didnâ€™t stand a chance against the deadly HIV/AIDS. His viral load was 600,000 copies per ml while his CD4 count had fallen to 167. Normal CD4 count is between 500 and 1500.
â€œI called my parents from the village to tell them what to do. My mother did not want to believe that I had AIDS because I had lived a very responsible life. I became born-again in the early years of my secondary education. In fact, my first sexual encounter was with my wife on our wedding night. My mother wept, my father was bewildered, it was terrible,â€ Watiti says, tears welling up in his eyes. He instructed his parents on his Will for his daughterâ€™s education and issues of money in the bank.
â€œAmong the many people who visited me was a Mzungu, Anne Crowe. She gave me a verse, Psalm 118:17: â€˜I will not die but live, and I will proclaim what the Lord has doneâ€™.â€ Reaching out from the shadow of death, Watiti grasped this scripture like a drowning man clutching onto a weed.
â€œI kept repeating that verse, and then, a colleague, Dr Moses Kamya told me he had been to an HIV/AIDS conference in which ARVs had been discussed.â€ Kamya advised him to begin taking ARVs.
â€œI didnâ€™t want to take ARVs. At that time, they were very expensive â€” more than sh700,000 a monthâ€™s doze and yet they were new drugs whose side effects I did not know,â€ Watiti says.
However, true friends stick closer than brothers. Dr. Kamya proved to be one. Along with others, he mobilised money for Watitiâ€™s initial ARV treatment. Slowly, Watiti regained his health although he was very thin. When he went to the bank, his signature had changed. The bank teller actually thought he was an impostor.
â€œThat experience was tough. Luckily, that was the bank where my wife had worked so some people knew me,â€ he says.
Months later, he went back to work. Then the second part of Psalm 118:17 came to play, â€œ...and I will proclaim what the Lord has done.â€
â€œA lady, now lecturing at a certain university came to my clinic for treatment. When we discovered she was HIV positive, she told me she did not want to die. I was touched. It was the same feeling I had had.
â€œWhen I told her about ARVs, she stormed out. However, she later called to ask for more information. She is now on ARVs and living a very fruitful life and is even pursuing her PhD. I find it rewarding and a joy to share my story,â€ he says.
However, telling his daughter was not easy. Watiti is now the clinic manager of Mildmay Centre at Kajjansi on Kampala-Entebbe road. He is looking well.
â€œI had taken my daughter to a boarding school. She was a prefect. Then during one of her school holidays, she asked me, â€˜Daddy why are you always sick?â€™ I knew I had to explain to her about my health but thought it wasnâ€™t time yet.
â€œHowever, she added, â€˜Daddy there is a girl at school whom the teacher has told me to make sure she takes her medicine in time. Some of her medicines look like yoursâ€™.â€
â€œMy daughter is a very intelligent girl. And we had agreed to always tell each other the truth. So we agreed to talk later. When I told her about her motherâ€™s death and my ill health, she broke down and cried. I held her and we cried together,â€ Watiti says, struggling to suppress tears.
Watiti says his daughterâ€™s attitude changed. She became so withdrawn. She was a bright girl who used to excel in academics and music but she dropped considerably. She began neglecting doing the things she once loved.
Teachers got worried because Primary Leaving Examinations were near and called Watiti to school. â€œIt was painful. You know she is my only child,â€ he says.
â€œHowever, after much counselling, she improved. In fact she scored Aggregate Four and joined one of the best girls schools in the country.
â€œShe wanted us to change and go to a church where they pray for people and they fall down and get healed. But I explained to her that even at our church, Deliverance Church, people get healed, only that God works in different ways.
â€œI believe God heals. I believe He can heal using prayer alone but I also believe He can heal us through what He has revealed through medical science.
â€œLike the way He told Moses to make a bronze snake so that anyone who looks up to it can be healed. Those who refused to look at the snake died. Although I still have HIV, God has revealed ARVs, so I swallow my drugs. I live a quality life. I believe I am here because of prayer,â€ he says.
Not exactly the life he had dreamt about. After joining Makerere University Medical School in 1979, Watiti, now 53, had dreamt of becoming a professor of surgery. However, he could not pursue his dream because of AIDS.
Watiti says he grew up in a poor family in Mbale. He went to Primary One at the age of eight, and dropped out of school in 1967. Then he began growing and selling tomatoes until his father got money.
In 1978, he completed Senior Six at Nabumali High School, Mbale. That is where he met his wife Margaret. They dated until after his graduation in 1985.
Margaret had graduated two years earlier with a degree in Agriculture.
Their first child born in 1986 died of sickle cell anaemia in 1990. When Margaret was expecting that child, Watiti got a swelling on his neck. He was advised to go for an HIV test but he did not go back for the results. Their second child, a baby girl born in 1989 is now a blooming teenager.
In 1993, Margaret was pregnant again. This time, her health was so poor. She had a premature labour. In January 1994, Margaret died.
Watiti didnâ€™t think of getting married again. He cherished the memories of his wife. However, eleven years later, he met another friend, a woman whom he was joyfully surprised that he fell in love with.
â€œShe is a born-again Christian and her former husband had died after living through what she says was a rather difficult marriage relationship.
On August 5, 2005, Watiti walked his beautiful bride, Naomi, down the aisle.
Naomi Watiti works with TASO headquarters at Mulago as the deputy director advocacy and capacity building. However, she prefers to keep her HIV sero-status a secret between her and her husband.
The Watitis do not plan to have other children, and, they are practising safe sex. Watiti says, â€œSex is part of marriage. Even as a Christian, I advise people to have safe sex using condoms. For couples that says they cannot enjoy sex with a condom, it is like wearing shoes. When I wore my first pair of shoes, I ended up carrying it in my hands on my way home, but these days, I cannot do without them.â€
Now he has a second lease of life. Not only five years but 12 years and still counting. He has handled people living with HIV at Mildmay Centre and believes that HIV can never break a personâ€™s spirit and resolve.
Dr Watiti is starting a weekly column in the Health and Beauty pullout every Wednesday, in which he will be answering questions about HIV and ARVs. You can send your question to:
Health Desk, P. O. Box 9815 Kampala or email@example.com