Ryan White Voices
Life is Too Short for White Walls
“These are HIV-positive patients right here that need me.... Even if we have taken different paths for our lives, they continue to teach me so much.”
Sheila Davis: Continued
Her motivation was simple: “We wanted more programs that impact a community right away,” says Sheila. “Africa is so saturated with HIV that I think people tune it out. What we teach is how to incorporate good nutrition in the community garden and just how important HIV is related to nutrition and taking care of yourself. Some of the men don’t want to garden so we get them involved by building a fence.”
While lecturing to the School of Nursing at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa, Sheila met a nurse—Sarah Mahlungulu—who had also started her own nonprofit nursing clinic. Sibusiso partnered with Sarah and her organization via funding, technical assistance, outreach, and education from 2005 to 2010. This nurse-to-nurse collaboration was a success and increased local capacity, so that today Sarah’s Mahlungulu Foundation has been able to take over.
“If I hadn’t been a nurse I probably would never have met these people or gone to Africa,” Sheila says. “There’s no other profession where you can go off in all of these directions and still do the core of nursing which is helping other people.”
Coming Home Isn’t Always Easy
“Coming home is harder for me than going from the U.S. to Africa,” admits Sheila. When I travel, “People are very happy to see you and before you know it you’re immersed in your work.”
“I used to think that good things always happened to good people,” Sheila says, “but I’ve learned that life isn’t always fair and that someone can be a really good person or there can be a really good village and a single person or an entire continent can be dealt a really bad hand of cards. It’s not fair but we’re here; we can’t change what’s already happened so we just need to try to move forward.”
“I have a daughter named Eva,” Sheila says. “She has come on trips to Africa with me and she’ll travel just about everywhere—except to the grocery store with me when I return from being abroad. There is a disparity of resources abroad and not just in terms of medicine but also food. We’ll see 15 different kinds of corn flakes and become resentful, because it’s not fair that we have so much and they have so little.”
But then she remembers that disparities exist in the U.S. as well. She says, “I’m also always reminded of how much work we have to do in our own backyard. I don’t know if I could leave my patients. I have also been providing care at Massachusetts General since 1997 and it would be very hard to leave them,” admits Sheila. “I’ve only ever been gone for weeks at a time. These are HIV-positive patients right here that need me. We’re the same age and we’re going through some of the same things, like menopause. Even if we have taken different paths for our lives, they continue to teach me so much.”
Sheila remembers talking to a colleague about what color to decorate the walls of a new apartment. Her colleague responded, “Walls should be neutral because it’s easy to fix if you change your mind.” Lying in bed overhearing this conversation, Sheila’s HIV patient sat up and said, “Life is too short for white walls.”
“I think she’s right,” says Sheila. “You can either go the safe route or not. You can choose to let colors in. Every room in my house is painted brightly. It probably looks crazy,” she says with a laugh, “but I like it.”
Making Way for the New Wave of HIV Nurses
In September of 2008, Sheila finished her doctorate in nursing from Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions where she is now a part-time assistant professor. In 2010 she also became the director of global nursing at Partners In Health, a large non-governmental organization that works in 12 countries.
Sheila maintains her work in the Infectious Diseases Unit though has had to cut back to one-day a week. “It was hard to leave full-time practice, but now I am [teaching] and working with nurses from all over the world on all aspects of global health and am fighting to give nurses a voice in [HIV and other health concerns],” Sheila explains. “It was time to pass the baton to the new generation of leaders in HIV nursing.”
“The HIV/AIDS epidemic prepared me well for the world of global health,” Sheila explains. “I will never forget the thousands of people that touched my life and who have made me a more compassionate nurse, a stronger advocate, and overall a much better person.”
Just like those early days of advocacy, Sheila is still making her voice heard and indelible mark on those populations hardest hit by health disparities.