An HIV Nurse Shares Her Patients’ Stories Through Art


Tuesday is World AIDS Day, and a nurse who treated HIV patients in the Central African Republic wants the world to learn more about the virus and its patients — through art.

In October 2014, 26 -year-old Doctor Without Borders nurse Diana Johnson went to Zemio, a rural town in the Central African Republic, to train local medical personnel and assistance treat HIV patients. Nine months later, after having fulfilled more than a thousand patients, Johnson tells their stories through sketches.

“When I travel, I often describe what I see as a way of trying to process it, ” Johnson told The WorldPost on Monday. “I wanted to draw a few people that I truly remembered and had connected to and a few experiences just so I could process it.”

From a charismatic 4-year-old to a moody teen to a delicate older woman, Johnson’s portraits show that HIV doesn’t shape a person. She guesses the best way to understand the virus is to remove the stigma associated with HIV patients.

“People should know now that HIV is just a chronic disease and we treat it. People deserve to be treated equally, ” Johnson said. “HIV deserves to be seen as simply an illness that you treat, the way you would treat diabetes or high blood pressure.”

Zemio is a rural town near the Central African Republic’s eastern perimeter with the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. With a population of 14, 000 people, the town is also home to some 3, 400 Congolese refugees, the U.N. Refugee Agency reported in March. Physicians Without Borders started working in Zemio in 2010 after an influx of Congolese refugees and internally displaced people from the Central African Republic entered the region following assaults from the Lord’s Resistance Army militant group, led by Joseph Kony.

Nearly 12 percentage of Zemio’s population is HIV-positive, Doctors Without Borders tells. But the region lacks qualified medical personnel to treat patients. Only two of the local personnel that Johnson developed had any previous medical training. There is only one nursing school in the Central African Republican capital of Bangui, Johnson noted, and the World Health Organization reported that there were only 250 physicians in the country of 5. 4 million people.

Take a look at the sketches below, along with Johnson’s memory of each patient, which were edited for clarity. All patients’ names have been changed.


Diana Johnson

Marie was one of the first patients I fulfilled. While in Mboki, a community about 78 miles away from Zemio, one of our HIV nurses and I went go looking for her specifically because he was worried. And with good reason — this young lady in her mid-2 0s couldnt have weighed more than 90 pounds. Her cheekbones, ribs and elbows seemed ready to penetrate through her taut, dusky skin.

We took her back to Zemio and she stayed with us off and on for several months. Her relatives in Zemio refused to accept her in their home because she was HIV-positive and not a close enough relative, so she stayed with us instead. She was always accompanied by her bright, energetic daughter, who was always ready to lend her mama a helping hand.


Diana Johnson

Nadia — a bright, energetic, squirmy, quirky, clingy ball of joy! She was HIV-positive and had lost both her parents, presumably to the same disease. Her grandmother did her best to take care of her, but since they lived several townships away from Zemio, in Kitessa, it was difficult for them to come fill their drugs. Many of the country’s roads are out of shape, prone to flooding and extermination by militant groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army.

I first fulfilled her in the hospital. She was 4 years old, runny-nosed and shyly hide behind her grandmother. The shyness didnt last long. One of the program’s doctors and I had to do hospital rounds while passing Nadia back and forth between us, as she would cling to us, constructing little sounds and greeting the patients.

Children are often the most vulnerable in HIV care, as they have to rely on someone else to give them their drugs, which are complicated as they change dosage as they grow up. Nadia has a lot of life left to live — hopefully she can be there for all of it.


Diana Johnson

Christine was a gentle older woman who came from around 60 miles away with chronic diarrhea that left her thin and emaciated. MSF’s HIV team started her on counseling, initiated treatment for her diarrhea and then antiretroviral treatment for her HIV.

Every time I insured Christine, she was a little stronger and started developing a healthy glow. She went from being bed-bound to a healthy working woman.

Jean de Dieu

Diana Johnson

Teenage years can be a rough time of emotional transition and HIV can complicate this process further. I first fulfilled 15 -year-old Jean de Dieu when he approached me, explaining that his parents were dead, and that he had no place to live and no one to pay for his education. I afterward fulfilled his aunt and uncle, who said Jean refused to go school despite their paying. He also didn’t get along with his cousins. He was a difficult character to read, would often avoid eye contact, and shared stories that conflicted with his family members’ reports.

But Jean and I developed quite a bond. On mornings that I would go running on the airstrip, Id often find Jean de Dieu jogging along beside me in his plastic green shoes. Hed tell me about wanting to go to school in Sudan or stories about his family, or hed just quietly fall into step beside me. On my last day in Zemio, Jean de Dieu was at the airstrip with a plastic bracelet to give me, with tears in his eyes.


Diana Johnson

This drawing is not of a particular patient but one that represents the general success of our program. When HIV-positive girls take their antiretrovirals correctly, they can negate the possibility of passing HIV on to their children during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. Im happy to say that over 95 percent of the babies born to HIV-positive moms in our program were HIV-negative.


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