Living Positively: Dr Watiti dedicated his life to fighting HIV/AIDS stigma

Dr Stephen Watiti does not know how he contracted HIV and it is not a question he wants an answer to any more. His focus is on helping others come to terms with their status and promote awareness of the scourge.

Monday November 26 2012

Dr Watiti thought he would not live for long after he found out he was HIV positive.

Dr Watiti thought he would not live for long after he found out he was HIV positive. Photo by Abubaker Lubowa. 

By Stella Nakakande

I was born 59 years ago in Mbale. I went to Nabumali High School and became a born-again Christian while there. This has been one of the fundamental changes in my life that shaped my future.

I studied Medicine at Makerere University from up to 1984 and worked in Rubaga as an intern doctor, then as a medical doctor up to 1988. I moved to Entebbe Road Clinic, up to 1991 and moved to Joy Medical Centre in Ndeeba until 2004 when I joined Mildmay Centre to date.

Finding out my status
I got married in 1985 and we had three children. The boy died from sickle cell anaemia, the girl is now at the university while the third died in 1993 having been born premature. This is actually the time when the problems began.

At the time, my wife became sickly and when she was tested for HIV, she was positive. She died in 1994. I also discovered I was HIV positive.

This was very hard because at the time having HIV was like a death sentence. I prayed for God to give me five more years so that my then four-year-old daughter would be nine years at least, if I was to die. There was no medicine and I was often ill, though I kept working. That was until 1999 when I became very ill.

The “five years” I asked from God were done; I put my daughter in boarding school and prepared for the inevitable, which almost came true. In 2000, I got full blown Aids. I had lung TB, Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer and meningitis. I had wounds in my mouth and on my face and sometimes I would cough blood.

Two things helped me; I felt I would improve and I wanted to be there for my daughter. Someone who visited me in hospital gave me a word of encouragement from the Bible to encourage me not to lose hope. It says “I shall not die, but I will live; I will talk about the great things that God has done for me.”

Prof. Moses Kamya, a friend, offered me a combination of drugs; these were ARVs. So, I began taking ARVs in 2000 and my condition improved. My friends bought me drugs until I joined Mildmay.

Joining the struggle
Most people do not want to be told they are HIV positive. But here I was HIV positive and doing fairly well. Then I made a decision to leave my general practice and go to work in the HIV/Aids field and help more people because I had been helped.

I talked to patients privately and then publicly. I disclosed my status to colleagues and began writing for New Vision newspaper in 2006 up to date. My column is aimed at zeroing infection, Aids-related deaths and discrimination of people living with HIV.

Talking publicly about HIV was to give it a face, more so, among professionals because there was this impression that this disease was for the “wretched of this earth”.

I was also motivated when I saw so many HIV positive children. Children need role-models, but if they do not see adults who have HIV and are doing the jobs they want to do, they give up. I wanted to mentor them.

I have to practice what I preach so teaching has helped me. I have been on ARVs for 12 years and my CD4 count has increased and my viral load has been maximally suppressed.

Handling stigma
It was difficult, I felt embarrassed and ashamed of myself. I did not know how I got infected and I do not know up to now--that’s one question I don’t try to answer. Neither my wife nor I had premarital sex, neither did I have extra-marital sex nor a blood transfusion; I guess I could have got infected in line of my work.

Facing hurdles
The people I told always advised me to keep the issue among ourselves. Some people associated HIV with promiscuity. That is one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome.

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