Speaking Out

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Fri Jan 22, 2010

By the Pricking of My Thumbs

By Sohaila Abdulali

My family lives in a remote valley in Western India, surrounded by mountains, waterfalls and the constant lovesick yodeling of frogs. It’s paralyzingly glorious, and there are no gloves, syringes or prevention manuals.

Last summer my father got very sick and the rest of us, forced into becoming medical experts, decided that he needed to be hydrated. I raced to town, three hours away, and procured some bags of saline solution and a packet of syringes. And a nurse, a highly trained, experienced nurse who has been working in hospitals for decades. The good hospitals, where the rich people go.

We rigged up the bags so they hung with twine from the roof beams above my father’s bed. We took pieces of surgical tape and kept them ready, stuck in a neat row on top of a Lego battleship that the grandchildren had made. The nurse tapped professionally, looking for a vein. The needle went in, and blood blossomed on him, her and the bed like some terrible flower. We all leaped back. The needle popped out. She did it again. By the time she finally gave up, I was hysterical with worry and ready to pick a fight with someone.

“Why aren’t you wearing gloves? What about HIV?”

“Haaai, how can you talk like that about your own father? I know he is a good man. I’m not worried. I always know when to be careful.”

I know about my father being a good man. A better man never lived. But what this has to do with his HIV status, I don’t know. First of all, the legal limit is four wives if he had so chosen, and they could all have been having mad condomless affairs with bisexual injecting drug users for all the nurse knew. Also, he had a transfusion a few years ago and who knows whose blood he got. And also, ahem…what about the nurse? If she’s been going around without wearing gloves for all her “good” patients, she’s a bit high-risk in my view.

HIV prevention protocols exist in all those good hospitals where the rich people go.  But they’re apparently quite unnecessary, as the doctors and nurses just know, in their wisdom, who is likely to have the virus. Healthcare workers have no problem handling the good people’s blood. If they put on gloves, families might take offense.

AIDS continues swaggering through India. And our class system makes it welcome.