Sisters’ legacy of life for Salvadorans with HIV/AIDS
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Maryknoll Sisters’ project continues to help Salvadorans with HIV/AIDS learn to live


Maria Magdalena, who lives in El Salvador, was diagnosed with the HIV virus in April 2017. Her husband had died several years earlier, leaving her to fend for herself and her six children, two of whom are autistic. The sudden news about her HIV status and the stigma attached to it, she says, drove her to despair and she felt like ending her life. Then she discovered a program called ContraSida (Against AIDS) and everything became brighter.

Started 24 years ago by Maryknoll Sister Mary Annel, a medical doctor from Chicago, ContraSida has helped thousands of Salvadorans with HIV/AIDS learn how to manage their disease and overcome the emotional problems and opportunistic diseases like ulcers and tonsillitis that it triggers.

Doctor Margarita Rivas de Santillana examines a patient at the ContraSida clinic.

“The Ministry of Health in El Salvador helps by giving out the medicines that allow people with HIV to live out their normal life,” says Sister Annel, referring to the antiretroviral drugs the government provides free to its HIV-positive citizens, “but they have not really helped alleviate other illnesses that have made people’s lives unsupportable. I have tried to focus on people with AIDS who are taking their medicines but who are facing all the other diseases the poor face.”

Sister Annel, who began serving in El Salvador in 1993, adds, “I have seen the AIDS epidemic change from a disease that kills people to a disease that is comparable to diabetes. If people take their medicines faithfully and take care of themselves, they will live a normal life. I started in HIV/AIDS ministry giving out medicines and lots of TLC and helping people prepare for death. Now I am helping people prepare for life.”

Maria Magdalena is a shining example. She is now able to support her family by selling vegetables in the local market since she started coming to ContraSida. “I was amazed how they treated us patients and understood our problems,” she says. “They care about the person and animate us to live our lives.”

At the ContraSida clinic, Maryknoll Sister Gloria Agnes distributes nutritious food to HIV positive patients to ensure that they have a healthy, balanced diet.

ContraSida, which operates out of a two-story building in a poor neighborhood in the nation’s capital, San Salvador, holds a clinic each Wednesday. There Margarita Rivas de Santillana, a medical doctor, and Norma Ethel Orellana, a psychologist, join Sister Annel in addressing the needs of people living with HIV who come for consultations on HIV-related ailments and psychological problems that may arise because of their condition.

While ContraSida normally charges each patient $3 per visit, those who cannot afford that fee are treated for free, a service made possible through donations from funding agencies and volunteer help. “We have only two requisites for the clinic: that you are HIV positive and that you are poor,” says Sister Annel. “We charge our patients so they feel like they are contributing to the running of the clinic, but they often don’t pay a thing, because they are so poor.”

After a prayer session, the patients receive a nutritious meal prepared by volunteers, some of whom are also HIV positive. Maria Recinos and Maura Penado, two of ContraSida’s 11 volunteers, are in charge of the kitchen. Every Wednesday they, along with several of the other volunteers, arrive early and start chopping vegetables and stewing meat. There’s a dynamic buzz in the air as they prepare lunch for the 20 to 30 people they will serve. “We feel good when we can help others who are in need,” says Penado, who herself is HIV positive. “It is life-giving! The Maryknoll Sisters are a great inspiration to us.”

Patients who come to ContraSida pray before receiving a meal and medical care.

Maryknoll Sister Gloria Ardenio Agnes has been helping Sister Annel at ContraSida since 2014. Sister Agnes coordinates ContraSida’s accompaniment program of home visitation to monitor patients’ progress and bring any medicines they need. She is also responsible for food distribution at the clinic, through which families take home nutritious essentials like rice, beans, oatmeal, milk, sugar, spaghetti, sauce and oil. ContraSida stresses how important a healthy, balanced diet is to complement the strong medications patients take and minimize the medications’ negative side effects.

Although ContraSida is one of the Maryknoll Sisters’ outstanding projects, it has become susceptible to the inevitable aging of its founder, who says she feels like a grandmother to her patients. “I have tried to see people as people,” Sister Annel says. “I’ve tried to give them the medicines they need and the food they need to keep body and soul together, and focus on helping people help each other. I encourage them to look at their whole reality and feel empowered to take care of themselves. But at 78, my memory is not good and I am giving ContraSida over to people who will treat patients like I treated them.” She is confident that Doctor Santillana, Psychologist Orellana and Sister Agnes will continue the ContraSida tradition of compassionate care.

Sister Gloria Agnes (l.) hopes to continue the compassionate tradition of Sister-Doctor Mary Annel (r.), founder of ContraSida.

Sister Agnes must first return to the States for six months of preparation for her final profession of vows as a Maryknoll sister in 2018. Having worked as a teacher in her native Philippines before joining the Maryknoll Sisters in 2009, she admits she was not initially drawn to HIV/AIDS ministry. “My passion had really been education,” says Sister Agnes. “But since being with ContraSida, little by little I have learned to love the work.” After making her final vows, she looks forward to returning to the patients at ContraSida.

“The longer I stay and journey with them, and see how they have suffered in life because of poverty and discrimination in society due to their HIV status, the more I learn that they are a part of me,” she says. She thinks of Maria Magdalena.
“Maria Magdalena became transformed since being involved with ContraSida,” says Sister Agnes. “Her daughter came to thank us for the complete transformation not only of her mother but the entire family. They are now a happy family.”

Featured Image: For 24 years, Sister-Doctor Mary Annel (l.) has addressed concerns of patients who come to ContraSida for care and consultation.


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About the author

Sean Sprague

Sean Sprague, a freelance photographer and writer living in Wales, U.K., is a frequent contributor to Maryknoll Magazine. Sean travels the world for a wide spectrum of development organizations, the UN and religious societies.