Today we will review chapters 12-18 of “My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story” by Abraham Verghese.
In Chapters 12-18 of “My Own Country,” Abraham Verghese continues to tell the real stories of his patients. We hear more about Clyde, Vickie, Bobby, Ed, Raleigh and Fred, and are introduced to the Johnsons and Petie. As Clyde declines, he expresses anger at his condition while Vickie laments her neighbors’ too intimate knowledge of hers. Ed’s condition declines to the point of a needed stay in the ICU with too many nurses only half-heartedly giving treatment. Bobby is so relieved when Ed passes: “Praise the Lord, his suffering is over.” (228) Petie and his mother were denied care so many times they were convinced that they would be kicked out of Dr. Verghese’s office. Fred’s sister Bettie Lou was just as strong an advocate for people living with HIV/AIDS as her brother, but in a way that matched her own personality.
But the story out of these chapters that struck me the most were the Johnsons. Will Johnson had gotten HIV through a blood transfusion in the few months before screenings were implemented as common practice. The Johnsons were Christians who struggled with their diagnoses because of the strong stigma attached, but their own experience with the disease led them to believe that HIV/AIDS cannot be viewed as a punishment from God. Although the Johnsons’ silence on their diagnosis may have been a missed opportunity to confront the false stigma of HIV/AIDS, their story lives on in this book and may tug at the heartstrings of some of us who otherwise have a hard time connecting to AIDS as a reality.
Through these chapters, Dr. Verghese is honest about his own difficulties in treating AIDS patients. Especially in the early years, the stigma associated with AIDS was so strong that they carried over to those who treated and associated with people living with HIV/AIDS. Verghese admits that he often “felt as ‘guilty’ as the kind of people I cared for” (253). Even today, there are too few people in the fight against AIDS because of these same stigmas.
Stigma, Support Groups, Overcoming Guilt
- Was it easier for me to sympathize and identify with this beautiful couple because they were not gay, not intravenous drug users? Because they reminded me of my parents? Will Johnson had at one point used the words “innocent victim” when describing his and his wife’s situation. I had wanted to interrupt him and say that all victims of this virus were innocent. (250)
- By taking up the cause of AIDS, I had become tainted, the associations of this word had tarnished me, I often felt as “guilty” as the kind of people I cared for. (253)
- For the first time in ten years, I hugged my son and told him how much I loved him. I would not want him to get sick without knowing that…Isn’t it a shame for it to take a disease like this for me to be close to my boy again? (257)
- I had failed to appreciate what he was going through and perhaps underestimated the comfort I could have brought him in spheres of his life unrelated to the virus. (271)
- The first time Fred and I shared a Coke or else shared a cigarette, it was a little spooky. Since then I’ve done that with Fred several times, even though I wouldn’t normally. I do it just to make a point with people we are around, particularly at TAP. (286)
- Before I was diagnosed, I felt immune; my denial was very strong. (287)
- We are not alone. The one unshakeable presence in our life is Christ … I would never understand an individual like that. But I would never, ever condemn him either. I don’t think any human being deserves this curse, and it is certainly not from God. My God is not a vengeful God. (291)
Questions to Ponder:
- Reluctance of treatment by everyone from nurses to dentists was prevalent throughout this section. In what ways do we let our own personal biases get in the way of our care for our neighbor? Are we aware of the effects our views of someone are keeping them from reaching health?
- The Johnsons present a new outlook on the ways that faith can get us through difficult circumstances. How can our faith help us to move forward in the fight against AIDS, one of the most difficult circumstances facing the world today?
Bettie Lou and Fred show us two vastly different forms of activism. Fred made his way to every march possible; Bettie Lou spoke through the sharing of a Coke. Consider the ways you may be most able to speak out for those facing stigmas and illnesses in the seemingly everyday parts of life.