- Dr. Susan Black ’64 tends to one of 49 children, who, with 11 mothers, live in a long-term residential facility in Johannesburg, South Africa. Black moved there to help families stay together in the wake of HIV infection.
At a time of life when many people are looking forward to retirement and taking it easy, Dr. Susan Black ’64 chose a different course. Never one to shy away from uncomfortable situations, Black allowed the words of a dying 12-year-old boy to burrow their way into her heart and to guide the course of her life.
Last year Black sold her house in Lowell and gave up a medical practice of 35 years to move to South Africa as the resident physician at Nkosi’s Haven, a home for HIV-infected mothers and their children.
The home is named for Nkosi Johnson, the boy who became an international spokesperson for one aspect of the AIDS crisis before he succumbed to the disease. Johnson’s message, that HIV infection shouldn’t separate mothers from their children, is the guiding principle behind the Haven, started by Nkosi’s foster mother, Gail Johnson. It is a message that has become more urgent, according to Black, as antiretroviral drugs are prolonging the lives of people living with HIV.
The scale of the crisis is staggering. In cities like Johannesburg, the estimated HIV infection rate is one in every three residents. The response in many places has been to send infected women to hospices to die and to relegate their children (some who contracted the virus during birth as well as those who escaped infection) to orphanages.
For those who don’t go to orphanages, life is even worse. “Everyday I see parentless homes with children parenting children, children being abused by rapists, and adults who steal from them,” said Black in an e-mail interview.
The mother of three grown children, Black said life has taught her that the mother/child bond is among the strongest. In 2000 at the international AIDS conference in Durban, after hearing Nkosi articulate his anguish over the bleak paths some children are facing, Black asked herself what she could do. She began corresponding with Gail Johnson, a social worker and police officer. They forged a relationship that eventually led to last year’s move, which Black made together with retired architect Charles Goldstein, her life partner of the last 12 years.
Before leaving Massachusetts, Black bid her patients farewell in an ad in the Lowell Sun. “I will miss you all,” she wrote, “but feel I am being called to try and help out in this new plague devastating the African continent.”
- Nkosi’s Haven
Learn more about Nkosi’s Haven and the Nkosi Johnson AIDS Foundation at www.nkosishaven.co.za and
Those wishing to volunteer their vacation time are welcome; Nkosi’s Haven will offer room and board to anyone who would like to come and share their skills and knowledge with the moms. Contact Susan Black at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nkosi’s Haven currently serves 49 children and 11 mothers in a long-term residential facility. But Gail Johnson’s vision to turn two sites she recently purchased—a 13-acre farm and a former RV park—into self-sustaining villages for a total of 800 mothers and children will soon come to fruition. Much like in an Israeli kibbutz, residents will engage in agriculture and take classes to learn marketable skills such as furniture making, weaving, sewing, pottery, and beading.
“The new development will economically empower the women, which is the only way they can escape the victim role they have been put in by their disease,” said Black. It will also “give them an income to put toward their children’s education once they are gone.” One of the villages will have an outpatient clinic and a hospice.
These days, besides treating residents at Nkosi’s Haven, Black teaches family medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Black, a Springfield native, was drawn to medicine at an early age when a close aunt ruptured a brain aneurysm, relegating her to a vegetative state and an early death. While finishing up college, Black worked for the Suffolk County coroner during the years of the Boston Strangler. “I would tag along as a future medical student to these grisly sights. It cemented in me the desire to go to medical school,” she said.
On the most recent leg of her career and her life’s journey the 64-year-old doctor continues to face harsh realities from which many people would turn away. Recently she spent half a day with a 14-year-old male rape victim who tried to kill himself with rat poison. She was forced to turn him over to a substandard hospital because he might harm himself at Nkosi’s Haven. “Sometimes being a doctor sucks,” said Black.
The payoff comes in small increments and in the knowledge that her work is making a difference in a few people’s lives. “Watching moms stay healthy and care for themselves to live for their children is the greatest gift on earth,” said Black. “This will be the tip of the iceberg in the future,” she said, the true proportions of this almost unimaginable calamity won’t be known for many years. In the meantime individual tragedies—and individual acts of selflessness—are playing themselves out every single day.