A selfless passion for helping others

 

A Belfast priest working in South Africa tells Kate Holmquist why he became a guinea pig for an experimental Aids vaccine

Kieran Creagh is the only white man among 500,000 blacks in the troubled township of Atteridgeville, South Africa. which means that his life is constantly under threat. Gun law dominates and the latest crime trend is known there as "familicide", in which men annihilate their wives and children, then shoot themselves.

Four out of 10 people aged 18-40 in Atteridgeville are infected with HIV due to unprotected sexual intercourse and when Creagh arrived there seven years ago, he found them dying in conditions that would not be acceptable for animals in this country.

It's a living hell, but one that Creagh has learned to find joy in by "living in the day" in his work as founder of the Leratong ("place of love") Hospice, where young people are cared for while dying of Aids. And if that weren't enough of a commitment, Creagh readily volunteered to become the first man in Africa to receive an experimental Aids vaccine to see if his system can develop antibodies capable of attacking the Aids virus.

Since Creagh volunteered for the vaccine nearly two years ago, he has suffered no ill effects and the trial has been expanded. Up to 2,000 people will be vaccinated later this year in the hope that this will lead to wide availability of the vaccine. Meanwhile, a study published this week proved that the Aids virus is weakening as it spreads, as happened with the smallpox epidemic.

A Passionist priest, 42-year-old Creagh's calling is to serve those whose lives reflect the agony of the Crucifixion, but family and friends back home in Belfast fear that in becoming a human guinea pig, Creagh has taken one step too far towards his own crucifixion.

Creagh's celibate status - "sexual partners zero" - made him an ideal candidate for the vaccine, since volunteers had to be both free of the virus and willing to forego all sexual contact during the vaccine trial. Asked, however, if he plans to remain celibate for the rest of his life, Creagh replies: "I'm still young. Who knows what life will bring?"

Going against the teaching of the Vatican, Creagh is an outspoken advocate of condom use. "The Vatican Hierarchy are quite far removed from normal, day-to-day life. While I support them, I think that if they had to deal with ordinary people on the ground here where I am, they may have very different ideas," he explains.

At the end of each month - when male workers get paid and some get drunk - it's not unusual for women being chased by boyfriends and husbands with guns to turn up at Creagh's door looking for asylum. "His excuse is that she's refused to have sex with him that night," Creagh says.

CREAGH FEELS THAT he's always lived on the edge of death and he's learned that it's a life-enhancing place to be. He learnt to cope with a constant fear of imminent death at the age of 14, when he witnessed the killings of two men on his doorstep in the Ardoyne area of Belfast.

Because the killers saw Creagh's face, locals told him that the killers would be back to kill him too. He was taken to the country for a few days by his parents (his father, Jim Creagh, was a former UTV and Irish News journalist, and his mother a homemaker), then resumed his life, forever feeling death at his shoulder.

He left school at 17 to work in the Bank of Ireland in Bangor for six years, but from the age of four he had always harboured a desire to be a priest.

Creagh was 23 years old when he joined the Passionists, then studied at Queen's University, followed by several years in Dublin studying at the Milltown Institute and working in Our Lady's Hospice in Harold's Cross. There, he was schooled in compassion for the dying by the example of Sr Laboure: "She was fantastic the way she so beautifully cared for them so that they would be seen with dignity by their relatives," he says.

Today, Creagh and his staff offer the same high quality of care at Leratong Hospice, the subject of a BBC Northern Ireland TV documentary to be screened on Monday night. However Creagh is critical of the way the documentary focuses on suffering and fails to show the joy and celebration that are regular features of life in the hospice, where beers are brought in for a monthly party. "I ask our patients, what do you need to be happy today? Often it's a small thing. Today is all we have."

He believes that his next calling may be working with street children in Durban, although he is apprehensive that due to child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, "it wouldn't be PC for a priest to work with children".

Although, he adds: "If people can just forgive a little bit more and love a little bit more, everything will be fine."

Love and Loss: My African Story, is on BBC 1 Northern Ireland, Monday, 10.35pm