Johanna Moleko knew that something was amiss when she started experiencing bad bouts of dizziness, leaving her unable to stand for more than five minutes at a time.
Putting her symptoms down to low blood pressure, she consulted her doctor who booked her into hospital for three days. But when her symptoms persisted, and she became aware of significant weight loss, her suspicions were aroused.
She had been for HIV/AIDS voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) in October 2002 at AngloGold Health Service's West Wits Wellness Clinic at Western Deep Levels Hospital, where the results were negative. But she wasn't convinced. "I have a feeling that I'm HIV positive," thought Moleko who went for a follow-up test in December 2002. Her fears were confirmed when a counsellor gave her the diagnosis. However, as a nurse working in the tuberculosis (TB) ward at the hospital, Moleko knew about HIV and AIDS and took the news more calmly than others might have.
On first meeting Moleko, one is immediately struck by her calm nature. She's a deeply religious person who attributes her faith to pulling her through the worst crisis in her life. So instead of feeling sorry for herself and looking to apportion blame, she accepted her fate almost immediately. But not before making a pact with the virus, which she has personalised by naming it 'House in Vereeniging' - an acronym for HIV. "Let's live together as friends," she appealed to it. "You know I can't kill you so I am accepting you."
She decided to attend the West Wits Wellness Clinic on a regular basis, revealing her condition to a close family member and to a trusted friend, as well as to her Supervisor and to the Assistant Matron of the ward. Since TB is an opportunistic infection for people living with HIV/AIDS, Moleko was moved from the TB Ward, where she'd worked for ten years, to the out-patients department. When her CD4 count dropped to 187 from 500 and her viral load increased to 1,986, she decided to undertake anti-retroviral therapy (ART) in April 2004. But not before finally sharing her condition with her children - a daughter of 21 and a son of 19. The thought of telling them had haunted her since she first received the diagnosis and it was a huge relief once they knew.
Since then, Moleko has publicly declared her status to colleagues on Aids Awareness Day, on 1 December 2004. Her reasoning is simple, "If we can be open, join hands and fight, there won't be a stigma." Moleko is one of a few employees at AngloGold Ashanti and AngloGold Health Service, who, by being outspoken about their status, are hoping to help destigmatise the disease and encourage acceptance by both HIV positive and negative people. As a role model, she continues to speak out.
She engages in informal counselling and has attended a peer educator course in line with best practice that favours 'lifetime experience' over 'theoretical experience' - i.e. those living with or affected by HIV/AIDS are best equipped to interact with others at an educational and emotional level. It is also reassuring that the diminutive Moleko, despite her condition, is healthy and sprightly - due to a combination of medication and attitude. She copes with a regular 07:00 to 15:30 nursing shift and, indeed, appears so normal that some question whether she really is HIV positive! After three months of ART her CD4 count picked up to 218 and her viral load dropped to below 50. "Accept the virus and live positively," is her advice, along with "Be open to talk. Don't be afraid even though it is painful."
Moleko has now proposed setting up a support group for those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS which has the backing of both management and unions.