We met her on a chilly day at Ryokpo TB Rest Home where she has been a patient for many months. Ryokpo is fairly close to Pyongyang (really just a 45-minute drive away), nestled into a low rise of hills that edge the wide valley. The final road off the highway leading to the rest home winds through a commercial-sized tree nursery, and then up through cornfields. On a rainy day, the road through the cornfield can become quickly impassable, as the dirt turns to thick and slippery mud. Many times, we have come so close to a visit, only to be turned back by an impassable road. On those days, the director will often walk out to meet us.
But this was a beautiful dry day, although chilly and windy. We had asked to visit with a patient who was receiving food provided by Rise Against Hunger. She met us in the courtyard and told us her story.
Ms. Ri (not her real name) is 41 years old and a textile worker. She is married and has a 4-year-old daughter. Some time ago, she developed a fever, and TB related symptoms (night sweats, weight loss, chronic cough) and was started on treatment. About 2 years ago, she was diagnosed as having multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB), and began treatment.
MDR-TB means that a patient has resistance to at least two of the primary drugs used to treat tuberculosis. This means that patients now have to take different medicines, for a longer time, in the hopes of killing the TB bacteria that are resistant to the first-line medicines. These MDR-TB drugs are more expensive and have more painful side effects that patients must endure if they want to successfully recover from TB. The mental, physical and emotional toll can be overwhelming.
Because MDR-TB is contagious, and because the treatment is so difficult, patients often have to spend months/years at care centers while they undergo treatment. This means long separations from loved ones while they recover. Visits are possible, but for the safety of the visitors, they need to take place in the open air, to reduce the risk of contracting TB or MDR-TB from an active patient.
Ms. Ri told us how much she appreciates receiving the extra nutrition provided by Rise Against Hunger meals which she prepares into a porridge twice a day, shares with her two roommates, and eats in between her regular meals. She said, “I think the food rations, the fortified food (from Rise Against Hunger), and the medicines are helping me recover from this disease.” She said, “I hope to be fully recovered by May 2019. I am thankful for the help I have received, and I hope to encourage and help other TB patients recover from TB after I am released from treatment.”