KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 9 ― There is a simple sign that hangs on the wall of the porch. Faith Helping Centre.
Simple enough but the love and care behind this shelter is encapsulated behind the steely determination of founder Michael Chow to provide a refuge for people living with HIV (PLHIV).
Inside, there are lounge chairs for residents to rest with an office corner where a desk is set up for administrative matters to be handled. Inside the kitchen, meals are cooked for residents while upstairs the rooms are equipped with beds.
Michael, 57 is probably one of the longest surviving persons living with HIV in Malaysia. That's 27 years so far.
And he has run the shelter since 1994. It is made up of two rented double-storey houses in Kuala Lumpur. One is for men and the other for women and children.
For his efforts, Michael was awarded the Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award in 2002. He duly spent the RM5,000 cash prize on the shelter.
Michael is, so far, the only HIV-positive person to have been awarded the prize.
He recalls that he thought it was joke when he was told that he had won the award and only found out later that it was Datuk Dr Christopher Lee who had nominated him.
“I never thought I would get it. God has made me humble and this award is for serving the people.”
Throughout the years, clients are normally referred to him by hospitals or after reading about him in the media. The shelter is a refuge for those who have no one to care for them. Some are unable to walk when they arrive at his shelter. For this, part of the recovery process is walking up and down the stairs with the caretaker until they are able to do it by themselves.
In addition to Michael and the caretaker, there is someone who cooks the meals while another is an administrative assistant.
Residents who have regained their strength eventually find employment while others volunteer at the Kuala Lumpur AIDS Support Services Society (KLASS) and provide peer support such as helping other PLHIV attend hospital appointments. There are those who move out but some remain until they are ready to leave.
“Some people stay here for a long time because their families don't want them. But those who can go back to their families will do so.
“I have a woman whose husband died and she is still staying with me after 15 years. Her children are sent to school.”
Michael says his work is his calling and while he does get tired sometimes, he questions where would his clients go if there was no such shelter.
“Sometimes, the people I take care of will say, 'You don't die first. Let me die first. Then at least there will be people to take care of the rest'.
“Of course during the tough times, I have to stay strong. I cannot cry in front of them. I force myself to be strong. Later, I will cry.”
Keeping the shelter open is always a challenge especially in recent years due to funding cuts.
He currently receives donations from M.A.C Cosmetics, families of patients and friends.
The cost to run both homes, which can accommodate up to 19 people, is RM20,000 a month.
Michael says the neighbours know about the shelter. After all, there used to be so many funerals in the early days while ambulances would arrive and depart.
“They don't give us trouble. I used to joke with Dr Chris that he was specialist in HIV and I was the specialist in funerals.”
Vincent, a resident at the shelter, says he has been staying for the past eight years. He was introduced to the shelter by KLASS.
“I felt scared and didn't feel like doing anything. But slowly, my self-confidence has returned. I have learnt a lot of things. And now, I go out to meet people. I am giving peer support. I am very happy. Soon, I plan to move out,” he adds.
Staring down the virus
Michael was diagnosed with HIV in 1992 when he went for a blood test upon joining the Bible College. He wanted to study theology.
Michael adds that he was a “gangster” when he was 16 and started using drugs until he was in his 20s. There was no harm reduction back then and he kicked the habit “cold turkey”.
His diagnosis came during a time when the only medication was AZT. It cost patients RM1,800 a month and Michael could not afford it.
He sought Dr Christopher's help, who then entered him into clinical trials and he was able to get medication for free.
Currently, he is on first line medication which requires him to take two pills daily.
He was also hit by Hepatitis C two years ago that saw his weight plunge to 39kg. Michael now weighs a healthy 54kg after receiving treatment.
However, he also has to deal with depression ― a side effect of the medication, he says. He duly sought help at the Sungai Buloh Hospital and is on medication for the condition.
“It is like taking M&M chocolates and my wife puts them in a pill box for me. Nowadays, the depression isn't so bad. I pray to God to give me mercy.”
Michael finally got married in 2012 after finding his match ― something he never thought would happen. They live together with her two children, of whom Michael sought to get “approval” from in order to marry.
He doesn't plan to retire just yet. Maybe in 10 years’ time, he says adding that he is currently training someone to take over the reins.
“I am already cutting back. Hopefully, I can retire and just become an adviser.”
“Willpower and my religion is what keeps me going.”
Reflecting on the HIV/AIDS situation in Malaysia, he says that although there have been improvements, more needed to be done for prevention and awareness.
* ENDING AIDS: Silver Linings in the first 25 years of Malaysian AIDS Council was a coffee table book written by Malay Mail’s weekend editor Audrey Edwards that was produced by the council and Malaysian AIDS Foundation.
Malay Mail, as media partner of the Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award Gala Dinner, has been given permission to republish some of the articles contained in the book.
The story this week is about Michael Chow who won the Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Award in 2002.
** Tables at the gala dinner are available in the following categories: diamond (RM50,000); platinum (RM30,000) and gold (RM20,000). For more information, please contact Nurshaliza Manaf at [email protected] or 014-504 8927 or Azahemy Abdullah at [email protected] or 016-646 5874.