Last fall, Joy Sadler found herself in a grim jail cell in a remote province of Indonesia, denied regular access to HIV meds and a doctor. The 57-year-old grandmother and nurse had traveled thousands of miles from her home in Waterloo, Iowa, to this neglected corner of the globe to tend to victims of a civil war between separatist guerrillas and the country’s military. But by her January 10 release, her own health was in need of serious measures. In fact, she was lucky to be alive.
The saga began in Waterloo last summer, not long after Sadler, who had tested positive in 1997, was hospitalized with bronchitis and a very high fever. Another HIVer might have indulged in a little self-pampering. But Sadler, a civil-rights Freedom Rider in the ’60s, set out for Indonesia—answering a calling, not taking a vacation. Her destination was Aceh, in northern Sumatra, whose desperately poor people are terrorized alternately by the army and the revolutionaries. “So many people in the villages there are completely without hope, and I know that feeling,” the devout Christian told POZ. Incredibly, Sadler traveled solo with no institutional affiliation. Once there, she immediately got to work. One day she heard that the military had set fire to a local village and the survivors had fled into the jungle. Sadler followed, fully aware that she was venturing into separatist-controlled territory—or what the flurry of newspaper accounts referred to as a rebel base. “I was the only person providing medical care to the people behind the conflict lines,” she said. “I didn’t have a political agenda.”
The Indonesian patrol that intercepted her at gunpoint, of course, saw it differently. While the soldiers struggled with the Scottish anthropologist with whom she had hooked up, the nonviolent nurse struck an un-Gandhi-like pose and slugged the commander. “I punched him before I even thought about it,” she said. “And then all hell broke loose.” Sadler and the Scot were arrested, and the police stated that they were carrying military documents and maps. Still, Sadler was charged only with violating her visa.
Sadler continued her nursing in the Aceh jail, where prisoners were routinely beaten, she said. But when Sadler herself grew gravely ill after a 39-day hunger strike to protest her detention without trial, she got an unwanted window onto what Indonesians with HIV face every day. Three hospitals turned her away once doctors learned she had the virus. “I had to start my own IV,” she said. Meanwhile, her daughter, Rosilyn Wortham, barraged the U.S. State Department and Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s office with calls, desperate for word of her mother. Activists took up the cause, and the U.S. ambassador intervened. “She’s so much more concerned about everyone else’s health than hers,” Wortham, a 31-year-old teacher, said with not a little frustration. “I forget I have HIV. I don’t let it mess with me,” is how Sadler put it.
When her case finally came to trial, the prosecutor claimed that the headline-making grandmother with HIV was a spy. Sadler countered that the rebels had forced her to enter their territory. In the end, Sadler was found guilty of visa violation, but released for time served.
Back in Iowa, Sadler did not exactly get a hero’s welcome. She had been cut off from disability and Medicaid. Her virus had become resistant to her meds. And all the media hype meant her hometown knew she had HIV, and now she is unable to find nursing work. She fears she may lose her house, which she mortgaged to go to Indonesia.
But she would do it all over again—and plans to. “I want to give whatever life I have left to help those who have no hope,” she said simply. She vows to return to Aceh, but she may have to lock horns with her daughter first. “She’s not going anywhere outside of this country,” Wortham said. “Of course, once she gets something in her head, you can’t stop her.”