Two-and-a-half-year-old Hoon (name changed) was a pesky toddler, shadowing his mother Maloti (name changed) most of the time while she tried getting her chores done on time. Elder brother Joon (name changed) who was eight-years-old was the quieter one, and kept an eye on his younger sibling whenever he was home. They lived in a quiet lower Assam town near Guwahati. On the first day of Bohaag last year, their father, a driver and odd-jobs man around town, came back early from work as the car he drove was at the garage. Maloti was hurriedly getting an early lunch of Poita bhaat and Alu Bhaaji ready when she heard her neighbor cry out ‘Oi Joon has caught fire’. There was a fire in the courtyard of cow dung cakes, for baking a clay mesh used as a fish net. As Maloti gathered her younger son in her arms, she noticed that except his tender face, his whole lower body had been burnt. They rushed him to the burn unit at GMCH where the doctor attending to him told Maloti, ‘He won’t make it, you know. 40% burns, but he is quite young’.
Miraculously, Hoon recovered. The family spent almost six months at the hospital, recovery was slow but Hoon got a little better every day. The real problem was: how to pay for medical aid? An operation cost around Rs 10,000 rupees, medicines were extra. After exhausting their meager savings, they had to pawn their small two-room house. As the months stretched, they sold off the only mobile phone they owned. Finally, on 3rd October, they took Hoon home, after 13 surgeries.
However, he could no longer walk without support and spent his days lying in bed. Around March this year, Hoon could not move his hands as his body lay stiff and sore. They admitted him to GMCH again, Maloti was worried as she had been told he would recover with time. The HoD Dr Seema Rekha Devi informed her that Hoon had tested positive to HIV during a routine blood test; the rest of the family was tested as well. None were tested positive. When the fact came to light that Hoon had possibly been given infected blood at GMCH, as he had never had a blood transfusion before, Dr Seema asked Maloti to suppress the affair, warning her that it was a deadly disease and they could be publicly ostracized. Hoon needed another operation, but the family couldn’t cough up another Rs 10,000 again. His operation took place only a couple of days later when they could manage to gather the requisite amount. Maloti asked me whether AIDS patients are entitled to free medical aid, when I answer, ‘Yes, they do.’ She poses a simple question for me, ‘Why did they then charge us for the bed sheet used to lay Hoon on during the operation?’
After local media took up the story, the HoD has been under the scanner and has since gone on leave. GMCH superintendent Dr B K Bezboruah has refused to comment since an enquiry into the incident is ongoing. He did assert though, ‘The GMCH blood bank is one of the state-of-the art blood banks. We do an Elisa test on every donor before accepting blood from them. The boy was going through skin grafting at the hospital. He had an external wound injury. So, there are chances that he might have got in contact with the virus somewhere else after getting out of the hospital’. When I inform Maloti and her husband of this, they tell me that Hoon had been restricted to the house since the last six months.
Hoon is on anti-retroviral therapy now. His Aitaa hovers around the boy, arranging the gamusa covering his lower body. As I exchange a word or two with her, she shares her dilemma, ‘Joon is staying with me now, but how long can I keep him from his younger brother? We fear he might get infected too. Children get into fights all the time. Normal cuts and bruises are a part of childhood, but for Hoon, things are never going to be the same again.’ As I leave the hospital on a cool May afternoon, a Bordoisila is gathering in the city. Sometimes, apathy cannot be met with indifference.
Written By: Nasreen Habeeb