Chapter one: Positive voices
Part III: Wish there was a counsellor!
Wish there was a counsellor!
In the early 90s, very few people in Bhutan knew about the HIV infection and even those, who did know about it, could not differentiate between HIV and AIDS. There was no counselling and no adherence of confidentiality. Who would know the situation better than Namgay Lhendup, a non-commissioned officer in the Royal Bhutan Army.
Namgay Lhendup was sent to Allahabad in India, in 1994 for a training course in nursing. As per the rules, blood screening is done of all those going for inter-country training programmes. Namgay gave his blood sample and proceeded to Allahabad.
Two weeks later he received a telegram - "wife critical, come back immediately".
Namgay returned but found his wife to be perfectly fine. He reported to Head Quarters, where the officer on duty casually told him that he was HIV positive and hence could not continue with the training.
"The news was direct and came as a shock to me. I had no idea what HIV was. My knowledge was limited to what was shown in advertisements, which said HIV/AIDS is dangerous. I thought I would die within 2 - 3 months."
The news of impending death had already killed Namgay, more so because he could not share it with anyone. He drowned himself in alcohol. "Alcohol did not help but it did make me sleep for a few hours."
Three years later in 1997, the same officer who had given the death sentence to Namgay by telling him his status, broke the news to his wife. An understanding woman, she cried only for a while and soon after accepted the fact. The counsellor persuaded her also to go for a test. She tested negative.
But destiny had other plans. During her pregnancy in 2003 she was tested positive. Unlike Namgay, who had started mourning his death the moment her test result was out, his wife reacted wisely and bravely.
She told Namgay, "Everyone in this world has to die one day. We will also die, so why worry so much!"
The wise words had their impact, but by the time Namgay came to terms with his status, he fell ill. The same officer examined him, and this time he shared the news with everyone in the office.
Due to lack of knowledge and scary Information, Education and Communication (IEC) in the early 2000, people could not differentiate between HIV and AIDS, and Namgay's colleagues started referring to him as 'the AIDS patient who would die soon'.
"I stopped meeting people. When my wife went out for some work people whispered behind her back. We had a very difficult time facing stigma and discrimination." Even very recently at his son's school, Namgay's son was standing in a queue for a routine blood test. The wife of the same medical officer from Namgay's office, who had detected the virus in Namgay and his wife, was teaching in the school. When Namgay's son's turn came, she said 'there is no need to test this boy. His parents are positive and he has to be positive'.
Namgay has four children and all are HIV negative.
"That one sentence changed my son's life. Three times we have changed his school. Now I have sent him to a school in the eastern region where no one is aware about our status."
Now, with increased knowledge and better medical facilities, Namgay and his wife are living a normal life. But the credit for this goes to a PLHIV meeting conducted by the Ministry of Health in 2009. A lot of sharing was done in that meeting, in which positive persons realised that they are not the only ones, but there are many others living similar lives.
"The feeling that I am not the only one was very encouraging. Now I joke with my friends and colleagues about my status. They call me 'the HIV patient', but there is no discrimination. I also joke with them and tell them that I am ready to donate my blood if there is anyone needing blood anytime. They laugh."
Today, Namgay has no complaints with life. But there is one wish that remains unfulfilled.
"I wish there were counsellors at that time. If someone had told me about the dynamics of the virus, I would have lived a cautious life. I would not have consumed alcohol and I would not have fallen sick! Most importantly, I would not have transmitted the infection to my wife!!"