When I was warded at the CDC in 2014, there would be volunteers from the PCC who would bring us food every morning at around 10 am. This was how I first got to know about the existence of the PCC. When I went to the PCC to check it out, I realised there was a big library there and I would regularly go there to borrow books to read. Aside from the library, there were other facilities in PCC including a kitchen where some patients used to cook their own food. I was impressed and inspired by how the other patients with HIV were able to move on so positively. As the days passed by, I started to come out of my shell, and started to interact with the other patients, volunteers and medical social workers at the PCC.
I was also introduced to several of the volunteers. One such volunteer from an international school kindly brought some art materials for me to do some drawing and painting. For much of my stay at CDC, I would occupy my time painting, which really helped to distract me from the otherwise stressful experience. Subsequently, staff from the CDC as well as volunteers would help to try and sell some of my works. This was how I first got started and today I am able to support myself as a full-time artist.
Over the years, I have seen how PCC, and now NCID Cares, helps and supports patients to get back on their feet. Through such programmes as the Red Ribbon Project, patients have been provided with the resources and materials to make and sell handicrafts to earn a stipend. In this way, PCC assists by employing some of the People Living with HIV (PLHIV) who are unable to find work outside. It is a good work environment where everyone is treated like family.
For patients like myself, it can be difficult to have friends. Out of all of my former contacts, almost none are still in touch with me today.
It was especially difficult at the beginning when I first discovered that I had HIV. I felt totally isolated. Even though the social workers and PCC staff did try very hard to reach out to new patients such as myself, not many were willing or able to share our feelings. I was afraid to talk, afraid of being discriminated and afraid of being rejected initially. The first friendships I made were with the other patients, who shared their experiences with me and taught me how to manage through the difficult times.
I feel that it is good for patients to reach out to new patients. Right now, I am part of a volunteer group under PCC and now NCID Cares, called Maitripals. We come over to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) every Friday to befriend patients and bring them food. Additionally, some of us volunteers also make it a point to come to NCID and visit patients on special occasions such as Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Hari Raya. It is sad, but often times, no one would come to visit the patients. Hence, a few of us would share our own pocket money to buy food for the patients and celebrate together. In this sense, we are patients serving patients. It is quite a heart-warming feeling.
Personally, the thing I've gained most from PCC has been friendship. Not only with other patients, but also with social workers, nurses, doctors and staff. Because everyone here knows about our condition and most importantly, we are able to be ourselves. The beauty of this friendship is that whenever we come to NCID and before that CDC we are able to sit down together and share food with everyone, from the staff to the medical social workers. In this group, we are able to speak openly, without needing to hide our identity.
Even though much improvement has been made in reducing the stigma towards PLHIV, there are still people who find it difficult to accept us.
I feel that just as society is now able to be more accepting towards ex-offenders, there too needs to be improvement in the way that PLHIV are being treated. Until now, there is still stigma towards PLHIV and society can do better to be more accepting towards PLHIV.
One of the ways that can help this cause is to have more events, where we can engage with the public, and invite them to come and get to know more about us. This is something I do through my paintings. Whenever someone asks me about why I do a particular painting, I am able to use the opportunity to share more about our condition. It's not really about getting others to know our personal stories, but to help them understand how a patient with HIV is just like any other patient.
Through help from the Patient Care Centre, I was able to hold an art exhibition at Tan Tock Seng Hospital Atrium in September 2019, titled "The Art of Healing". My next plan is to conduct an art workshop – one where the public, volunteers and patients can participate in. Not only will patients have an opportunity to speak up through their paintings, but it will allow us to educate and engage with the public.
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