Release date
July 24, 2006
Robyn Fieser
Regional Information Officer, Latin America and the Caribbean
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
011 (809) 567-1271

Santa Maria Hospice

July 24, 2006, —

When they first brought their church-sponsored AIDS program, Proyecto Vida, or "Project Life," to Coatepeque, Guatemala, in 1997, Maryknoll Sisters Dee Smith and Marlene Condon served seven patients out of a little room at the local Red Cross.

Back then, fear of the virus was widespread and discrimination in this impoverished, southwestern Guatemalan town was rampant — not just from members of the community, but from health care workers, too.

"If we were taking a patient to the hospital, we had to go in a Red Cross van and stay with them," says Sister Marlene, a Minnesota native. "Otherwise, they would have sent them home. They would have said, 'You got AIDS, you're going to die,' and they would have sent them home."

Dee Smith and Marlene Condon.

Dee Smith, left, and Marlene Condon, right, look on at the inauguration ceremony for the Santa Maria Hospice.

Nearly a decade later, much has changed.

Last year, when Sister Marlene and Sister Dee looked to expand the program's reach again, the reception was different. The sisters' plan this time was to build a much-needed hospice for AIDS patients who didn't have the resources to care for themselves.

CRS frequently works with Maryknoll in the field, providing funding or technical expertise to help support projects the sisters have taken on. But it was the enthusiasm and generosity of the larger community — both local and international — that convinced the sisters that it was a good idea to build Santa Maria Hospice, only the third of its kind in the country.

Change for the Better

"We were amazed. People come in and see the patients," says Sister Marlene. "People know that these two gringas came from outside and that we've worked with HIV-infected people for years and that we've now decided to build a hospice. You have to gain the confidence of the people."

Sister Dee told us, "I'm extremely grateful about our relationship with CRS, not just for the money and economic help that CRS has given us but also the solidarity CRS has with us. CRS is very interested in what we're doing. Ordinary people are called upon to do extraordinary things, and I think CRS together with Maryknoll are doing that. And I think it's a great partnership, I really do."

HIV-positive workers assist in the constuction of the hospice.

Proyecto Vida employed HIV-positive people to assist in the construction of the Santa Maria Hospice.

CRS is not alone in its support of Proyecto Vida. The hospice project has benefited from the support of many, both from the local community and around the world. A local developer donated three lots of land. The sister of one of his salesmen received medical care through Proyecto Vida. Sister Marlene's nephew and an architect designed the plans and traveled from the United States to launch the construction. The local high school held a bingo game and a marathon to raise money. The Lions Club of Coatepeque contributed blocks and cement and the mayor paid for the water installation.

Kevin Cook, a professor at St. Mary's College in London, where Sister Dee was a student in the 1970s, raised about $30,000 for the project. CRS donated medical and office equipment. And in August of 2005, some 500 people inaugurated the hospice with a Mass and a meal of chicken and rice prepared by the community.

Learning to Take Care of Themselves

Patients come to the Santa Maria Hospice after being referred from Clinica 12, at the Hospital Nacional in Coatepeque. Clinica 12 is a regional hub for sick Guatemalans, many of whom don't know they are infected with HIV. Started by Sister Dee and Sister Marlene, the clinic moved to the hospital three years ago after Doctors Without Borders helped fund a medical attention program for AIDS patients. In addition to testing and counseling, the clinic began to offer medical care once a month for patients. Currently supported by the government of Guatemala, the clinic sees between 50 and 60 new cases every month.

The clinic is a rarity in Guatemala, where in many places people can't get HIV testing. In 16 of the 22 departments in Guatemala, for example, there is no basic health care. The success of the clinic, which is also providing some antiretroviral treatments, made the sisters realize that many patients had nowhere to go after receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis.

The idea for a hospice was born.

The Santa Maria Hospice is just 20 kilometers west of Coatepeque, in Pajapita, a hot, humid town almost at sea level. Surrounded by lush gardens where plants and trees are harvested for medicinal purposes, AIDS patients stay at the hospice for three months after being referred from the clinic. They are cared for and attended to by a staff of people who are HIV-positive. As the number of patients grows, Sister Marlene and Sister Dee hope that former patients will stay and work.

Patient room at Santa Maria Hospice.

In this patient room at the Santa Maria Hospice, the beds and tables were made by a woodworker who is employed by the hospice - and also has HIV.

Santa Maria is a refuge of sorts for patients who cannot afford care elsewhere or whose families cannot take care of them. The hope is that they will learn at the hospice to care for themselves. Those receiving antiretroviral treatment learn how to take their medications and about what side effects to expect.

Patients receive nutritional counseling, training on how to live with and avoid spreading the virus, and information about their legal rights. Social ostracism is rampant in Guatemala, which now has nearly 9,000 reported AIDS cases, and people are routinely fired for having the disease.

Patients' families are counseled, too.

Family counseling brought hope to Daniel, a former military officer whose parents initially shunned him because of his illness. "It was very hard for my parents to find out that I have AIDS," says Daniel, who came to the hospice in January after he was diagnosed with HIV and tuberculosis. "Even though my mother has not come, my father comes to see me and the hospice staff explained everything about the disease. Now he is more calm."

Daniel, who weighed only 85 pounds when he arrived, hopes to return to work and to his family after he leaves the hospice.

Although the hospice can accommodate 19 people, there are only three currently in residence. Like Daniel, all of them have tuberculosis and all of them are hopeful.

"Here I have food and antiretroviral treatment," said Cristobal, who was left homeless after he fell ill with tuberculosis. "My future is not certain because I can't work, but I hope to get better to help the other patients and the personnel here."