The ceiling lights pierced her eyes as she was laid on a steel table with the hospital gown. She felt better to be in the light instead of the darkness in which she spent most of her life. It always reminded her of the cosmic black hole which consumes everything.
The room was horseshoe shaped with white marble flooring and the walls were covered with the protocols of labor room resuscitation. The nurses’ station was at the center, surrounded by thirteen steel tables. Some were occupied and the others stained with blood, yet to be cleansed. There was utter chaos everywhere; amidst it she could hear the sounds of some women cursing, some chanting verses from the Bible, some begging for a few drops of water to quench their thirst. Despite of all the din, the health workers and nurses worked sincerely round the clock, with the available resources provided by the department. The room looked like a battlefield with the monitors beeping, nurses shuffling about, doctors in their sterile gowns trying to assure the patients that everything would be fine. ‘What an irony? Giving hope even to the dying patient! Hospital is never a place of predictability’…she frowned wearily.
When Sarah was alone in her apartment, the water bag broke, a day before the expected date of delivery which was normal since only four percent of deliveries occurred on the EDD. She called 108 for emergency assistance and her trusted friend Emma assured her that she was on her way. The emergency response team arrived in twenty minutes to her apartment. The nurse checked her vitals and reassured her that the baby was fine. The journey in the ambulance was quite peaceful thanks to the new vehicles for emergency maternity services which the county had offered for every mother free of cost. Mothers like Sarah who could not afford the costs of a private hospital saw it as a blessing. The nurse secured an intravenous cannula in her left hand.
Sarah looked around the ambulance in amusement.It smelled of alcohol, which was used to keep the place free of microbes.To her right was a small bench for relatives to travel along. The bench was unoccupied, she realized bitterly. On her left was the attendant nurse with medical equipment. There was an oxygen cylinder behind her pumping oxygen into her. Sarah wondered how many lives this vehicle saved each day and how many died on their way.
Sarah was calm as the nurse handed her over to the doctors at the emergency department of obstetrics and gynecology. Before leaving, the nurse gave her forearm a tight squeeze silently reassuring her. IV fluids were given since she was allowed only a very minimal intake of water in case of an emergency surgery. The pain was unbearable and traumatizing. It was ripping apart her nerves and started from her abdomen, down her pelvis and thighs. She gripped the railing hard enough to compress the flow of fluid through the IV line. Yet she remained calm and composed and the ER nurse thought that it was unusual. In her fourteen years of service she had never come across a mother like Sarah who suffered silently with such endurance. She thought that there could be only one reason for her state-the pain in her heart was more devastating than the physical pain she was enduring.
The nurse started unpacking a white parcel from which she extracted a gown, a pair of gloves, a face mask, goggles and boots which she wore in a sterile manner. The mothers at other tables wondered why the nurse was dressed up like an astronaut. She threw the empty parcel in the green dustbin and walked to the thirteenth table. Though the room was a perfect U, the thirteenth table was kept isolated for some reason the other patients did not know. The doctors knew. The nurse knew. Sarah knew. Yes, she was HIV positive.
The nurse came towards her table, looked at the monitors and assured her that the baby was doing fine. Another person dressed in a similar suit introduced herself as the Obstetrician who would supervise her for the night. She gave a reassuring smile and added that since it was her first baby, it would take a little longer to deliver. Both of them left the table and asked her to press the button on her right side whenever she needed assistance. Sarah thanked them and rested her head on the table feeling the pain radiating through her body. But the pain above, in her heart, haunted her.
She closed her eyes and let the last 25 years flash by her eyes, during which she had made decisions which no mother should take, pain and suffering which no mother should endure. Everyday seemed longer than twenty-four hours. Every month that went by seemed like a small victory as she prepared herself for the final task she was about to complete.
Sarah had lost her parents at a very young age due to some mysterious illness as told by her relatives. There was a rumour in the village that her father met his brutal death due to his sins.Her relatives,fearing the safety of the girl, took her with them. The loss of her parents was devastating.The young soul had lost enough already. The only person she had was her uncle. He cared for her, fed her and put her to bed while she slowly recovered from the shock of her parents’ untimely deaths.
Her uncle decided to go with her to the nearby town and stay till she completed her studies. Sarah was determined in accomplishing her goal of earning a scholarship to college. She worked hard, studied relentlessly with utmost dedication. Her teachers and friends were kind enough to offer help both financially and educationally. Amongst those was Emma. They sat together in class. Played badminton together. Studied in the evenings under the shady warmth of their school tree- their favorite spot. Emma’s parents were lovable. They invited Sarah to celebrate festivals or birthdays at their home. Though they weren’t rich, their affection and love for both these kids knew no limits.
All of a sudden Sarah’s small world turned upside down as her uncle, the guardian and caretaker, died in an accident. She was shattered and her future was in peril.After the funeral,her relatives were hesitant to take her back fearing she was a bad omen. She sensed the situation, packed her bag and left home. She had only her scholarship and little money which her uncle had saved from his pension. She reached Emma’s doorstep for help.
Emma’s parents were more than happy to help Sarah. They paid the fees for her college and arranged accommodation near her college in the city. Sarah’s eyes welled with tears every time they cared for her. Though Emma’s parents were a little worried as their daughter could not get a seat in the same college, they felt happy to help Sarah. Somehow, they got a seat in the nearby college in the same city, a stone’s throw away.
Days went by. She met Emma every weekend near her college at their favorite cafe. Just then fate decided to play with her once more, this time more cruelly. Sarah started getting frequent colds,fever and dysentery.In the beginning the doctor at their college dismissed it as food poisoning and gave her antibiotics. But the fever never settled. She started developing itching all over her body. She and Emma visited the nearby hospital and got admitted for blood tests to find out what was eating her up. Emma’s parents drove to the city to see Sarah. In the course of hospital stay, Sarah started losing weight. She was a skeleton wrapped in sagging skin, which pained Emma and her parents.
That evening,the doctor arrived at Sarah’s room. Sarah sensed that something was gravely wrong as he was holding reports of her tests which they had performed over the past two days. The doctor was silent, just like a storm before it hit the place. Sarah braced herself. The doctor revealed that he had performed a test called ELISA and that she had tested herself to be positive for HIV. Emma’s parents were shattered to hear that. Sarah sank in her bed. Doctor also explained that Sarah had probably acquired it from her parents and that the virus was latent in her body until now when she developed acute HIV syndrome. Doctor explained the tests that had to be performed further on to enhance her quality of living and safety practices at home and also advised counselling for the family
That night no one spoke and it was the longest night Sarah had ever encountered. Somewhere around midnight she had fallen asleep. When she woke in the morning her room was empty. She turned around and saw some papers and an application form on the table.One was a filled application form for a home for people with HIV. She didn’t cry but with folded hands she prayed to God to keep them safe wherever they went, because she knew how much they endured all these years to keep her happy and she was grateful for that. At the bottom of the page was a number which they had left to contact them in case she wanted some assistance.
Hiring an auto, she reached the ART center. At the entrance, she saw a temple, went inside and prayed for a minute. Any person would have lost hope in God for having made them suffer through all of this but she didn’t despise anyone, especially not God, because her will power to endure the suffering was more powerful than the evil that was haunting her.
The center was a well-kept place where people of all ages were taken care of. This was a place for the abandoned, she thought; but going around the campus she realized she was wrong when she saw the smiling faces of children, men working under hot sun, women cooking afternoon meals, old age people sitting in their arm chairs, monitoring everything. She thought this was a place where their strengths came out as smiles amidst the tears that should have overwhelmed them.
Within days she became close to everyone, and the center had become a home she never asked for. She also had kept in touch with Emma who begged her for forgiveness for abandoning her. She reassured her by telling her that she understood the circumstances under which she was forced to leave. She also had become friends with some people at the home who were in college. Amongst them was Tyagi, a muscular man with long hair which he tied in a ponytail. They frequently met as they had some common interests like tennis and politics. He also encouraged her to finish her degree at the college so that she could get a decent job to support herself. Sarah thanked him for his concern but she enumerated the financial difficulties, despite the free drugs the government had been providing her and the meagre amount she could save. The next day Tyagi borrowed the bike at home, took her to college and enrolled her back. Both of them had drained their savings to get her back to studying. On the way back when she asked why he had done this, he said he never even got the chance to go to college.Sarah knew she was falling in love with him. But she knew there lay a daunting task ahead of her and she knew the only way she was going to repay him was by getting a good job. Tyagi worked outside the campus to get some extra money. She relentlessly studied, dutifully attended to the needs of people in her home and affectionately caught glimpses of Tyagi when he was not watching her. People at the home too started teasing her. She would dismiss their accusations but she couldn’t control her love for him. She cleared her exams with first class and landed a good job at a campus interview. Meanwhile she had gathered up her courage to ask Tyagi if he could marry her, and he declined without a second thought. When she probed on why he couldn’t, he said he was illiterate and would probably never earn the money needed to raise a family. She said that she wouldn’t have earned her degree without him and he was the one behind her success.She asked if he loved her to which he answered yes without a second thought. Tears rolled down from four eyes as she lay on his lap that evening, staring at the starry sky which reassured them that there is light even amidst darkness.
Few months after their marriage they settled in jobs and she earned more than him. Their marriage was a simple one at a register office attended by very few people. Emma was there too;they hugged and chatted for a long time. Tyagi thought about how over the years he couldn’t find a good friend. Emma had gifted them a bike which their parents had brought when they learnt that Sarah was getting married. She couldn’t fight back her tears.
The world she dreamt of was finally becoming complete. Tyagi was blissful when she announced that she was carrying a bump which she would have for the next nine months. After that, they never spent an extra penny, and started saving to raise the kid.They did that with love. People at home were more than happy to take care of her in turns. Sarah surfed the internet about the dos and don’ts of being a HIV mother and enquired about similar people who had gone through such an ordeal. Sarah requested her manager to help her with her financial needs and her company offered to cover her medical expenses. Her joy knew no bounds.
She went through all her preemptive viral load tests and drug schedule. She denied usage of epidural anaesthesia since it would increase the duration of labor and her baby’s chances of contracting HIV. The thought suddenly plagued her mind. If her baby grew up and happened to have the disease, she couldn’t bear to hear the words that would point to her being the cause of her baby’s suffering.
But a bigger problem had taken root in her life. Tyagi started having respiratory problems frequently; she feared it was the same problem which killed her mother. The doctor did some tests and confirmed that Tyagi’s viral load was higher, and his breathing problems were due to infections which occur in people with low immunity.
Soon Tyagi’s condition worsened and he succumbed to his disease. There was nothing much the doctors could do as HIV didn’t have a definitive cure- you either keep fighting or die. The funeral was a small one since she wanted to keep the expenses low.‘Tyagi would understand’ she thought. His insurance plan had yielded a good sum of money securing basic necessities. He knew the end was near;he wanted to be sure that he didn’t leave any incomplete task for her. ‘He was wrong as he still had one job to finish; the job no one else could do-be the father of her baby’ she thought.
Sarah’s EDD was only a week away. The doctor had advised her to stay cautious and keep in contact with the hospital in case of an emergency. She sought help from Emma, who applied for leave to stay with her. It was a great relief for her to see a soul lingering around taking care of her.
Sarah opened her eyes, saw the nurse beside her bed checking on her, as she screamed the word ‘crowning’. The doctor arrived with a delivery tray containing the essential instruments and a syringe containing oxytocin, a boon to the world which had saved millions of mothers over the century from blood loss. Sarah could feel the baby slumping down her pelvis sending pain through the nerves and ligaments.She bore it with happiness as she would soon be with her baby.
Finally, she heard cries from the bump which had suddenly vanished from her stomach, the bump which lived in her for over ten months, the bump which sent smiles with kicks to her belly. The cry curved her lips since she knew a crying baby was a safe and healthy baby. The doctor cut the cord and set the baby on Sarah’s abdomen. Sarah held her baby tightly.This was the happiest moment of her life. The baby soon was asleep, tired from crying. She kissed her on the forehead. Her eyes overflowed with tears and her heart skipped a beat. For the first time, though it was painful, she didn’t suffer.
‘I will love you even if you resent me,
I will raise you till the Lord lets me,
I will not let harm touch you, before it first consumes me,
Even if I die you will always be watched by me’