He frantically searched for his veins but they were nowhere to be found. Ekenna was eager to save this little child’s life – at least to help save his life. He was a Corper at a General Hospital in Borno State. His NYSC post was on the border with Niger Republic. He had been working in the hospital’s laboratory for just three months, during which he had learnt a lot. His boss Malam Kabiru and senior Colleague Sanni had been very generous with their knowledge in training him. Besides, he had struck up a very good relationship with them. Today he was working alone. The doctor had sent for him on a Saturday as both Kabiru and Sanni were out of town. “I need to give this child blood as fast as possible otherwise he will die,” Dr. Dennis explained. “Can you check his blood group and find out if any of his parents can donate blood to him? They have some relatives around too, so if his parents fail the test for any reason, test their relatives too,” he added. Ekenna opened the lab and swung into action. The baby was very frail and gaunt. For a while it seemed as though he was dead. His breath was disjointed. He was pale and heavily emaciated. Malnutrition was the first thing that came to his mind. He tried his upper arms but his veins were so tiny that he could not find them. He tried the back of his palm, but that too was completely devoid of veins. All of a sudden, the baby took a long, deep breath as though he was about to give up. “God please, save this child,” Ekenna prayed quietly.
The longer it took to find the baby’s veins the less confident he became. His hands shook as he anxiously searched for a vein to draw blood from. Each time he pricked the sick baby, he felt sorry for him. The baby winced in pain with each prick of his skin. At least, it assured Ekenna that he was still alive. After a long unsuccessful search, he had to try the one spot he hated to draw blood from – the forehead. The doctor’s words echoed in his ears as he worked briskly to find a vein to draw blood from. He ran his finger across his forehead. The baby’s mother was almost in tears. The sick baby was her first child. She so desperately wanted him to live. A gloomy look adorned the father’s face. He watched curiously, desperate for an answer. They had been married for a little over a year. Their relatives were seated outside so as not to overcrowd the laboratory. Carefully, Ekenna searched the baby’s forehead. His finger stopped on a tiny bump that appeared to be a vein. He scrutinized it carefully; making sure it was a vein. He knew it would hurt the baby but this was a necessary evil to save his life.
He swiped the spot with alcohol and dug the needle in his forehead. The baby cried painfully, weakly kicking his legs in response to the needle. He drew as much blood as he felt he needed and pulled out the needle. Relived, he asked them to wait outside. The baby was still crying, albeit not loudly anymore. He went to work to verify the baby’s blood group. Shortly afterwards he had the results. He went outside and asked them who would love to donate blood to the baby. “Ni! (Me!),” the sick baby’s father volunteered eagerly. Finding his vein was easy. Soon, Ekenna had the father’s blood group and it matched his son’s. Then, he ran a routine HIV test before taking blood from him. Ekenna stared at the result with intense seriousness as if his stare could alter it. The baby’s father was HIV positive. Ekenna was deflated. He went to the doctor’s office and informed him. “There is a high chance that the mother is positive as well. In that case, test her and the baby as well.” Ekenna returned and told the father that he needed to test the mother too.
She smiled beautifully as he drew her blood. She sensed hope. Her blood was going to save her son, and she was willing to give it all to keep her son alive. Little did she know what the test was all about. The husband was hovering as her wife’s blood was being drawn. One of their relatives was carrying their baby who had stopped crying. He seemed to be getting weaker by the minute. He asked them to go outside while he tested the mother. To his greatest disappointment, she too was HIV positive. He was saddened by the result. He tried to keep a smile on his face as he carried on with his work so as not to alarm them. Deep inside, he could not stop the stabbing sadness that gored terribly at him.
Finally, he tested the baby, who was equally positive. All that effort has gone in vain, he thought. He took another look at the baby as he walked past them to the doctor’s office. He could not help but think of how their world would soon tumble upside down. A pang of pain and pity ran violently through him. He handed the result to the doctor, who asked him to go and bring them. As he was taking them to the doctor’s office, the baby was breathing erratically. The mother tried to hold her close to her heart. She may have thought that perhaps her warmth was enough to comfort him, at least for the moment. She pressed him close to her chest. A moment later, she moved the baby carefully away from her chest to get another look at his face. He looked numb. Ekenna felt the baby was gone. She shook him gently for signs of life, but there was no response from him. The father joined in and moved their baby’s head but it did not come back to its original position.
Tears descended from her face as she held their lifeless baby in her arms. Her husband tried to console her. One of their relatives was crying profusely. She and the baby’s mother looked very much alike, so Ekenna thought they might be sisters. He led them to the doctor’s office and left. He could not stay to hear the second phase of the sad news, as if losing their child was not enough. He returned to his apartment at the Corper’s lodge and buried his face in the pillow. This was his third family to be infected with the deadly virus in a week. Earlier in the week, two sets of parents had tested positive for HIV as they tried to donate blood to their respective children. Today’s scenario was more difficult for Ekenna. In the previous cases, the babies left the hospital still alive…for the time being. The rain began to jangle furiously on the metal roof sending him into much needed sleep.
A few weeks later, Ekenna ran into them at market. It was a steaming hot afternoon. She recognized him at the meat stall. “Kankanin likita, kuka ji abin da likita ya gaya mana? (Small doctor, did you hear what the doctor told us?)” She asked as soon as she saw him. Her husband said very little. “I am…I am not sure what the doctor told you,” Ekenna feigned ignorance of their condition. He had grown up around Keffi, so he spoke fluent Hausa. “But you remember us right? We were in the hospital not long ago with our dying son.” “Oh! Yes, I remember you now,” he answered. She and her husband looked perfectly healthy, although sadness was boldly scribbled on her face. “I don’t understand this. The doctor said we have HIB (HIV),” she continued. Ekenna understood what she meant. He wanted to say something but words eluded him. She looked somber; tired and short of answers.
“The doctor said we will become sick eventually. I don’t understand this. We are perfectly healthy. He referred us to other doctors; a female doctor for me and a male doctor for my husband. The female doctor said that people get this HIB from…” She stalled, not sure how to describe what she had in mind. “I understand,” Ekenna said, saving her the awkwardness. “But that cannot be possible. I don’t see how I could have gotten it that way. I mean my husband and I didn’t deserve this…we have known each other for quite a while before we got married and I have never been anywhere else or with anyone else. And, there is no cure?” He nodded his head pitifully, wishing he could end her confusion and suffering. “I have known Yusuf for some time now before we got married. I don’t understand how this disease came into our lives…our bodies. Do you know if they can find a cure for it soon? That thing took my son and now I am told it will come back for my husband and I as well. The government is supposed to provide some treatment that can help us live a bit longer they told us, but they don’t have the drug at the center. They don’t even know when or if they will get it at all,” she said raising her voice in frustration as she waved her hands. “Small doctor please do you know if they will find a cure for it?” “I hope there is a cure someday, but right now, there is no full cure,” he replied gravely. “So the same diseases that killed our son will kill us too? Even though wear healthy now? It is already stalking us inside?” Ekenna did not know how to answer her. A furious frown appeared on his face.
“How did we get this? Yusuf and I have been asking the same question,” she asked. She was visibly frustrated. Yusuf had remained awfully quiet all along. Ekenna made eye contact with him, but he averted his eyes. He could not return Ekenna’s stare. Ekenna knew a lot of men in the area were in the habit of crossing the border at night for rendezvous with girls in Niger Republic. He had heard about girls waiting to pocket Nigerian Naira across the border in return for some services. He could not help but think that Yusuf may have made a trip or two across the border. Guilt stood tall and firm on Yusuf’s face despite his efforts to mask it. “I would have done anything to save my child, now I have to live with the guilt that a disease that has been lying quietly inside me took my son. I caused his death. Maybe it is okay that I will die of this disease after all; perhaps that is a deserving punishment to me…for putting a poor innocent child through all that pain and suffering.” “It is not your fault,” Ekenna replied quickly. “You did not know you had the disease. You did not decide to give it to your child. It happened…It just happened. Somethings you just cannot control,” Ekenna tried with so much difficulty to steer her away from self-pity and guilt. He wanted Yusuf to say something, but he remained utterly reticent.
“My son…my lovely son!” She declared. “He did not even get the chance to call me mama! Or to call his father papa! How sad…how sad that he had to come into this world with such a disease. I think of him every day, but Yusuf says it is the will of God. I guess he is right, but it hurts. It hurts even more knowing that that terribly sickness is quietly ravaging my body and Yusuf’s now. That is how the female doctor explained it to me. I will be ready when it comes. I will not go down quietly. I will fight that illness with every will in me insha-Allah!. If it took my son like that, I am not going to make it easy for it to take me down.” Ekenna admired her will and courage, but even more, he felt a deep sense of pity for her. It is so powerful that it will erode your will once it kicks in, he thought. He could not say that to her. She had found something to cling onto as a lifeline in preparation for what was bound to come – a battle with HIV-AIDS, and he was not about to weaken her faith and will. “Yes, you should fight with all that is in you. I am sure Yusuf will fight too…at least in memory for your late son,” Ekenna said, trying to lure Yusuf into the discussion. He barely budged. “Yes…yes,” he said feebly. He looked unsure of himself and rattled.
Ekenna could not help but think of her throughout his time in Borno. After youth service, he had stayed back to work for the hospital as a lab technician. It was another two years before he would see her again. She was seated near the entrance to the pharmacy department. Her beauty had receded. Her skin looked shrunken and freckled. Her eyes were weak and her voice subdued. Not even the cruel hands of infirmity could completely erode her beauty and warmth. Her face lit up in a weak smile, behind which lay an ocean of sadness and pain. “Small doctor!” She called to him. “I never really knew your name,” he said, fighting back tears at the sight of her state. “Halima,” she answered. He wanted to ask her “How are you?” But that was obvious. He smiled as he thought of what to say. “How is Yusuf?” He finally asked her. “He is dying,” she replied. “I am sorry,” Ekenna said. “I guess that is life. I am trying to stay on my feet and fight…some days I am left completely broken by this cruel disease, but on other days like today, I drag my broken body up and make HIB worker harder before I join my son in paradise.” “I am so sorry,” was all he could say, still fighting back tears. Her thick, dark eyebrows and dimples, which had been badly beaten up by AIDS still told the story of what a beauty she used to be.
“He gave that to me right?” She asked him abruptly referring to Yusuf. Ekenna understood what she meant but he pretended he did not understand her question. “I mean Yusuf,” she reiterated more explicitly. “Maybe.” “Yes he did! The female doctor told me that during my last visit. I remember the first day I saw him. He was a happy boy returning from the farm with his father. The moment he set his eyes on me, he told his father jokingly that he would marry me. It was such a beautiful sunny day. I adored the smile on his radiant face.” She paused for a while dn then added, “If only I could have seen at that point that I would be here today dying slowly but surely, maybe, I could have gone in a different direction. He is lying at home coughing out a stream of blood, and I know that soon it will be my turn. I am not afraid to die, small doctor. I wish it would be quick. It is the slow grind; the act of dying one little step at a time that makes my poor heart bleed. I take all these medicines knowing that I will still die. I want to stop taking them. I think that will make the journey quicker for me.” He could see that her eyes were becoming misty. “I am very sorry. I wish there was anything I could do to help you. You really don’t deserve this. No one does, but…” he could not think of what to say. “Just fight like you said you would and when you go, you’d go knowing that you gave it your best fight.” She smiled feebly.
“What is your name?” She asked him. “Sunana Ekenna (My name is Ekenna),” he replied. “You knew we had this that day we brought in our son right?” “Yes. I found out from the test. I was really sad for you two…for losing your son and for having this terrible condition.” “I remember it all now. You looked very sad. You felt sorry for us. You are a good man. Are you married?” “No, I am not.” “When you do, please don’t bring such a terrible thing home to your wife. A terrible disease that stalks you relentlessly to death,” she said, staring him in the eye. “I won’t.” “You promise you won’t?” “I promise.” “I have little time left to live. It is now left to people like you to help make sure that people like me don’t get such a disease. Keep your promise. I may not see you again. Remember your promise!” “I will,” he replied. “Sai anjima (Good bye),” she said. “Bye Halima,” Ekenna said as he slowly began to walk towards the lab. He wished so terribly that there was a cure for HIV-AIDS; something to save this lovely, innocent lady. “Ka ambaci wa'adin! (Remember your promise!),” she shouted in her weak voice. He turned, looked at her and said, “I will keep my promise.” She smiled as he turned and walked away in tears.
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