A thin boy with a serious expression, Teboho Khophoche seems almost fragile, particularly in contrast with the rugged mountain backdrop of his home in Maseru, Lesotho. But his community, teachers, and even his own family were once afraid of him.
Or rather, they were frightened by the virulent disease that had infected his body—tuberculosis. The young boy had contracted a disease that had already taken the life of his mother, leaving him an orphan. To make matters worse, Teboho had developed a dangerous strain known as multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), which is immune to the most common (and usually the most effective and inexpensive) drugs used to treat the disease. MDR-TB patients must endure an intensive 2-year treatment regimen of second-line drugs that often come with debilitating side effects.
Too often in poor communities like Teboho’s, MDR-TB is deadly. And like the shy teenager, those who are known to have the disease often become social outcasts.
Teboho has battled TB for years. After fighting reoccurring bouts with more easily-treated strains of the disease, he was finally diagnosed with MDR-TB in 2008 and admitted to the Botsabelo MDR-TB hospital, operated by PIH’s partner organization in Lesotho. Dangerously thin and very weak, he was terrified of the disease, and often cried from homesickness. He had to remain at the hospital for five months. His family rarely visited.
When he was finally discharged, his aunt, who had assumed custody of him after his mother passed away, no longer wanted to care for him. She had made plans to send him to an orphanage. Due to neglect, he quickly fell ill again and was readmitted to Botsabelo.
The PIH Lesotho team knew that they had to do something. Treating Teboho’s socio-economic situation was in many ways just as important as providing the medication to treat the disease. Without a safe and stable home, his recovery would be nearly impossible.
So the PIH Lesotho team began interviewing the boy’s relatives, searching for someone who could be counted on to be his guardian. They finally located his grandmother, who had been living and working in the neighboring country of South Africa. She agreed to move back to Lesotho so that she could care for him.
The PIH team continued to follow Teboho’s progress, checking up on him often and happily reporting that his grandmother has become just the guardian—and family—that the boy needed to make a full recovery. The team then began working on helping Teboho to build a future for himself. They met with a local school and teachers, who were initially afraid to have Teboho join their student body. The PIH team spent hours discussing the circumstances and explaining that the boy was no longer infectious.
Finally last January, the school enthusiastically prepared to welcome him; but it was Teboho who was nervous. Although he desperately wanted to attend class, the teen was understandably afraid of how his peers would treat him. He noticed that other children would point and stare at him. “They are going to laugh at me at school because my legs are very thin and long,” he confided to PIH Lesotho country director Hind Satti. So PIH arranged for him to receive counseling to help him overcome his fear. And as he grew stronger emotionally, PIH provided him with monthly food packages to help grow stronger physically.
Today, the 17-year-old has successfully completed the two-year treatment regimen for MDR-TB and is disease-free. A stellar student, he excels in his math and English classes, and has taken up a hobby raising pigeons in a small hutch behind the house he shares with his grandmother. He plans to eventually begin selling the offspring to generate a small income to help support himself and his grandmother. After finishing his schooling, he hopes to make use of his entrepreneurial spirit by building a career in business or finance.
Tiboho is just one of the over 460 patients that PIH Lesotho team is supporting as they battle MDR-TB. From helping patients remain on their treatment regimens, to educating local communities about the disease, to ensuring that patients have the social and economic resources they need to be cured, the PIH Lesotho team is slowly bringing hope to communities that live in fear of MDR-TB.
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