For 29-year-old Vijayan* and his pregnant 23-year-old wife Sheela*, 2019 was a year they were truly looking forward to. They had finally paid off all their loans and were joyfully awaiting the birth of their second child in January. For the inter-caste couple, that had fought all odds to be together, a shot at happiness suddenly seemed within reach. But just weeks before they were ready to welcome the new year, the unsuspecting couple's life was pushed into chaos.
On December 3, Vijayan, a resident of Virudhunagar district, took his wife to the Sattur Government hospital (GH) for a regular medical check-up, as she was in her third trimester. The daily wage worker was informed by the duty doctor that his wife's platelet count was low and that a blood transfusion had to be conducted. Vijayan immediately went with a doctor's note to the blood bank in the Sivakasi GH to buy the required quantity of blood for the transfusion. The procedure was completed the very same day. And it was the last time, Vijayan says, he saw his wife as a healthy woman.
"She immediately got a fever that night, but when we asked the doctor present there to check, we were told it is common after a transfusion and that it will go away soon. I took their word for it," says Vijayan, regretting the trust he placed on the medical professional. "On December 5, when we came back home, my wife kept getting worse. In our three years of marriage I have never seen her fall ill and I couldn't understand what was happening," he recounts.
Unbeknownst to the family and the doctors at the hospital, the blood that had entered Sheela's bloodstream carried HIV virus in it. It was donated by 19-year-old Mahesh* in November, to replace the blood from the bank used to treat his relative at the Sivakasi Government Hospital. And it was only by chance that even the donor became aware of the disease he was carrying. Mahesh was planning to travel abroad and therefore underwent a medical check-up in a Madurai hospital earlier this month. It was then, that he came to know that he was HIV+. On December 13, he alerted the Sivakasi hospital about the virus in his blood.
"My wife is usually an active person but she couldn't even get up after the transfusion. When she couldn't take it anymore, we went back to the Sattur hospital on December 17 and she was admitted there," he explains.
By now, lab technicians who had received information from the Sivakasi GH, were aware that Sheela could be carrying the HIV virus but hid the information from the family, he says. While Vijayan left the hospital premises to bring his wife food, they conducted blood tests on her to check if she had been infected.
"I didn't know they had conducted the test on her already. But on December 18 they took samples of my blood. When they found that I was HIV free, that is when they told me that Sheela could have the virus," he says.
The hospital then allegedly took the couple to the Virudhunagar GH to 'confirm' the infection.
'Our dreams shattered'
Vijayan was a driver at a matchbox factory when he first met Sheela. She was pursuing her Bachelors in Commerce but worked part time in the match box factory he was employed in. They were from different castes and Vijayan recalls how difficult it was for them to get married in 2015, with all the opposition that they faced from their families.
"We have fought so much to live a good life with our daughter. I am just a daily wage worker but my wife is well-educated. She couldn't write the final exams in her third year of college because she delivered our first child. But she really wanted to get back to studying and I wanted her to have everything that she desired,” says Vijayan. "But I saw our dreams shatter in front of my eyes when they confirmed that she was infected. I have taken care of my wife so well and the government has done this to her," he adds, his voice breaking.
Vijayan's anger poured onto the streets of Virudhunagar on Wednesday as he, along with his relatives and friends, protested outside the District Superintendent of Police's office. The agitators demanded that the government bear expenses of Sheela's treatment and stringent punishments for everyone responsible for this 'unforgiveable error'.
"HIV is not like other diseases, there is so much stigma associated with it. What wrong have my wife and I done?" asks Vijayan, “My three-year-old daughter keeps crying. She doesn't understand what is happening and why her mother is not even picking her up. What will I tell her? Let this pain end with me and my wife. This cannot happen to anybody else in Tamil Nadu.”
Within an hour of the agitation, Tamil Nadu Health secretary J Radhakrishnan met the furious husband and promised treatment for Sheela wherever she chose to be admitted - in a public or private hospital - and he further terminated the employment of three lab technicians directly involved in handling the blood sample. In addition to this, an enquiry has been ordered to probe the involvement on administrators and doctors involved in the process.
When asked if he is satisfied with the government's action, Vijayan states that he has won his first battle, against the hospital, because of support from people. As he travels along with his wife to a private hospital in Madurai, he says, "But my next battle is with God. The doctors say this disease is incurable and that my wife will always be weak," he says. "But she is everything to me and all I ask God is that I die before she does because a life without her is not worth living."
*Names changed to protect identity