Release date
October 16, 2008

Free Medicine Means New Life for Ugandan Girl

October 16, 2008, —

By David Snyder

In a frilly peach-colored dress, Gladys Hdyero sits quietly between her two grandparents, the only adults she has left in her life now. At 11 years old, Gladys has lost both of her parents and joined the estimated 2 million orphans left behind in the wake of Uganda's AIDS pandemic.

Gladys Hdyero

Gladys Hdyero nearly died from meningitis in 2004 before she gained access to free antiretroviral medications from a CRS-supported program in Gulu, Uganda. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

When Gladys was tested after her mother died in 2002, doctors discovered that she was also HIV-positive. When her father died two years later, Gladys' grandparents took her in, shouldering the burden of raising a young child at a time in their lives when they once figured someone would be caring for them.

As her immune system weakened, Gladys needed care frequently. She contracted meningitis—a dangerous and highly infectious brain condition—in 2004. She had to stay in the hospital for three weeks and nearly died.

Gladys' grandparents began losing hope, but they pooled their meager savings to purchase a few months' worth of antiretroviral medications. At the time, these "miracle drugs" were costly and in short supply. The expense—more than $25 a month—proved too much.

Then, Gladys' grandparents learned of a possible option through a volunteer caregiver at the Comboni Samaritans of Gulu. A local partner agency of Catholic Relief Services, Comboni provides home-based care and other support to people living with HIV.

"We have a Comboni caregiver who was the first to tell us that the medications would be coming," Gladys' grandmother, Vincenzina Oryema, says. "We could not afford to continue buying [the antiretrovirals], so when these came it was a blessing to us."

Gladys Hdyero with her grandmother

After Gladys Hdyero lost both her parents to AIDS, her grandmother Vincenzina, at right, and her grandfather took her in. Photo by David Snyder for CRS

The medications are provided for free through a consortium of humanitarian agencies known as AIDSRelief, of which CRS is the lead agency. They are made available through St. Mary's Lacor Hospital, the same hospital that had been treating Gladys regularly for the many infections ravaging her weakened body.

Profound Results

Vincenzina signed Gladys up immediately for the program. In fact, Gladys' records indicate she is the 10th patient of the 2,400 now receiving antiretroviral medications through Lacor Hospital. Vincenzina says the effects of the drugs provided through CRS and AIDSRelief were immediate and profound.

"Soon after she started the medications there was a lot of improvement," Vincenzina says. "For me I was surprised. The ones from CRS, I saw the impact very quickly."

Gladys has regained the weight she lost during her many illnesses and her skin rashes cleared up quickly. Though her health is improving, she still faces challenges, including a struggle to catch up on more than a year of school missed as a result of her many illnesses. Monitored at first daily, now weekly, by her volunteer caregiver from Comboni Samaritans, Gladys is on a path her grandparents never could have imagined just a few years ago—a path they attribute at least in part to the care and support they receive from Comboni.

"They have a lot of interest in the child," Vincenzina says of the Comboni volunteers, adding that she and her husband worry what will happen to Gladys after they pass away. "From time to time they are here, and I am very grateful."

David Snyder is a photojournalist who has traveled to more than 30 countries with CRS, including Uganda.