When the skies came tumbling down!

AIDS Ribbon

Jay Ambadi writes about the emotional turmoil that he went through when he was suspected of being HIV positive

They say it is the experience that makes a man what he is.  They also say that wise men learn from others’ experiences (or mistakes, if you prefer).

Let me narrate an experience that changed my entire outlook towards life and death.

It was just another Friday, during my Air Force life.  I was busy in the office, clearing all pending jobs as I was scheduled to go home on a vacation, that evening.  At about 10 o’clock, I received a call from the nearby Air Force Hospital, asking me to report to their blood bank immediately.  Couple of days ago, I had donated blood there on the request of a colleague whose wife was to undergo a surgery.

I reached the blood bank and met the person in charge who incidentally was a friend of mine.  He said there was some problem with my blood sample and they would have to draw more blood for further tests.  After much cajoling he agreed to divulge the secret that my blood had tested positive for HIV.  He reminded me that he was not supposed to share that information with me before further testing, but he was doing so only because of our friendship and his confidence in me.

However, his confidence in me was rather misplaced (though I managed to continue showing a sort of nonchalance for his benefit).  I felt devastated and could feel the whole world crumbling around me.  In spite of his assurances that 3% of the test results are statistically proved to be wrong and therefore I don’t have to worry, I couldn’t help worrying.  Should I have more confidence in 97% or the 3%?  Well, the answer seemed very obvious.

Then I requested him to carry out the test immediately.  He assured me that it will be done at the earliest and the result will be made available by Monday (Sunday being a holiday!).  That was simply not acceptable to me.  I told him that I need the test to be completed on the same day as I have to decide whether to continue or to cancel my vacation.  There was no way that I will go and face my wife and my 2 year old son; with the cloud of an HIV+ uncertainty hanging over my head.

He then promised me to do whatever best he can and with that assurance I left the blood bank.  I was riding my scooter as if in a dream or stupor; my mind having stopped working rationally.  I couldn’t make up my mind and I decided to go to my quarter which was on my way to office.  I went and lay down on the bed and started thinking.  If the result is still positive (and the chances are 97%), what would that mean to my life?  How will I face my wife and family?  How will the society judge me?

I knew there were a number of reasons that could make me HIV+.  The mass inoculations at the time of enrolment (with the same needle as the disposable needles were yet to get introduced) or very primitive style of blood collection at donation centres etc. were some of the immediate reasons that came to my mind.  However, a biased society would definitely condemn me as guilty for promiscuous engagements.  My position as a soldier, who lived most of his young life away from family, at different parts of the country, would make it impossible to convince anyone.

Not that any innocence or guilt would matter much. But the stigma would get attached even to the family and subject them to all kind of social issues.  While we all know about the need of inclusion of HIV + persons into the society, when it comes to reality our people have not been much open minded.  We keep hearing about the stories of children of HIV+ parents having to go through hell in their schools. And this incidence that I am narrating took place almost a decade ago, when the biases were even more prominent.

Then the thought of suicide came to my mind. How about just ending it all so that I don’t have to face either my family or the biased society?  I considered that option quite seriously and for some time I felt that was the only viable option before me.  Then suddenly the other side of the coin struck me.  I can escape it all… but what about my family?  How do I know if my wife is not affected by the same status because of me?  How about my son?  Do I leave them to the fancies of fate and escape like a coward?

That thought put an end to the option of suicide.  Then I was forced to consider other options.  Do I again live like a coward hiding from the world?  Or do I take whatever comes and continue to lead a life as normal as it can get?  When I started thinking along these lines, the answer was again crystal clear to me.  I have to face the life, even if it is a short one.

Whatever it takes, I won’t quit at all.  I will die as a fighter and not as a loser.

Then I decided to go back to office and be as normal as possible while waiting for further results.  When I reached office, my boss and all my colleagues were eager to know why I was called by the blood bank.  I merely stated the truth as if HIV+ status is similar to common cold. I  did not hide anything and then went on to do my job.  There was almost a pin drop silence in the office.

While trying to concentrate on my work, thoughts kept on passing through my mind.  I made a pact with myself; if the test results turn negative, I will never ever worry about my death again.  I will live my life as if each day is a gift and would accept death with open arms, whenever and in whichever form it might visit me.   I remember I was even ready to barter for blood cancer or heart attack at that very moment.

It was at about 2 o’clock when my friend from blood bank called me again.  He said there was nothing to worry and the result was fine.  He said, “Go and enjoy your vacation. You are absolutely fine.”   Then I got up from my seat and said the same to all those who had by then surrounded me. There was an immediate celebration in the office.  Everyone felt relieved and extremely happy.  Each one of them, beginning with my boss, hugged me and I started drinking water. I drank about 6 or 7 glasses of water and the muscles of my legs started aching.

I had not realised the extent of tension that was being built up in my body, until that moment.  My whole body was aching and I kept drinking more water.  To cut it short, I went home happily.  But I guess the impact was so much that as soon as I reached home my wife knew there was something terribly wrong; that too by just looking at my face (usually I take pride in my poker face).   I shared the entire incident with her and she, like the true gem that she is, promised me to face together, whatever it is in store for us.  That assurance and support from her not only shamed me about my previous thoughts of suicide but also became therapeutic to me.

My reactions seem silly and laughable today, after all these years.  But they were the absolute realities for me at that point in time.  This made me approach life and death as a subject, more deeply.  I realised we human beings take life and death rather too seriously.  While we all know that death is inevitable, we try to wish it away as far as possible and when finally it catches up with us, we are not prepared.

When we start taking death less seriously and accept it as a matter of fact, then life becomes more enjoyable, irrespective of the state we are in.  It prepares us to be more responsible about our commitments to ourselves, our family and our society.  Also it makes us more courageous to face the realities of life than preferring to escape through suicide.  Today, I feel proud that in those hours of worst crisis, I did not choose to abandon my duties and rather chose to live the life to its fullest.