During my stint as a Medical Officer I was sitting in my consulting room during a generous tea break. I had my own problems : I was preparing for a diploma against the backdrop of my father lying comatosed in hospital after a hi-jacking. So when a good friend came into my room looking like she was ready to offload some news, I wasn't sure that I was ready to handle it. But good friendships come with the caveat that you will be available in times of crisis. So I put my books aside and listened.
I held a clicker of a black-pen in my hand and wore a tie-die pink dress. It's strange the details that you remember so intimately when you recall hearing big news. Like how I remembered the red scarf that I wore and the CD that we were listening to when we received the call that my dad was shot. I pulled my chair back watching her sip on tea - it had to be ginger tea because the scent of fresh ginger waded to my side of the room. I had noticed her looking really run down over the past week - physically drained. I knew that she was having some domestic troubles. I also noticed that her eyes had lost some of that luster that I usually associated her with. Her eyes were tinged with ... yellow?
"Ah ginger tea, " she said ,"good for immunity"
"You have a flu?" I asked.
"The strange story gets even more interesting," she said, "I have HIV actually - from a needle-stick injury"
I measured my reaction , instantly toning down the shock and obviously modulating my tone. But those tell-tale tears building up over my bottom eyelid must have been a give away. If she noticed them, she showed no signs of letting them unsettle her. "Don't be patronizing," I told myself, "play it cool".
She went on to explain how this all happened during her pregnancy when she was an intern. Her shift was over and she could have handed over any outstanding work to the next doctor on shift. She noticed that one of her patient's intravenous lines were out, so being the thoughtful doctor that she is, instead of handing over the work, she decided to insert the line. This was a very sick patient she tells me, he had AIDS - a very advanced stage of the disease, he hadn't even moved for days. As she was inserting the needle, he moved tossing the needle into the air and then it landed puncturing her skin - I can't remember whether it was her hand or foot. But the damage was done.
Most of the doctors that I've worked with are flippant about taking antiretrovirals after an injury - we have so many near encounters with infected fluids that we would be spending a large amount of time on drugs with some serious side-effects, if we took treatment with every suspected HIV encounter. Occupational health Specialists tell us that the risks of contracting HIV from a needle-stick injury are low, with the statistics being something close to 0.03%. We also carry a measure of bravado believing that we are healers and altruism won't go rewarded with a life threatening illness. But here was a clear injury - and a very ill patient. My friend started the therapy - but she was pregnant and reacting very badly to the medication, so she stopped taking them altogether.
Later on in her pregnancy she was admitted to hospital with a strange illness.Doctors wrote it down to a vague pregnancy related illness, but she never fully recovered. Eventually a specialist encouraged her to get tested for HIV, and the results spelled out the diagnosis that she would carry with her for all her years.
She talked without scathing, hatred of her situation or self-pity but with a determination that was admirable and a conscience that was alive. The reality of it all still hits me every-so-often. It could just as easily have been any of us. I've had two needle-stick injuries in my three years of practice. I was so sick form the side-effects that I even considered stopping the treatment. My friend's story finds an echo with other similar stories lurking in doctor's tea rooms and over shared gossip in the operating theater. It terrifies us, because it brings home the reality of mortality - the concept that 'Doctor' is not infallible and that this job that brings with it (often undue) respect and good money, carries risks, big risks ... life-changing risks.
(I have received permission to mention my friend's story - anonymously)