Today is World AIDS Day. I have been threatening to write about the book that lead to me studying Medicine, and this appears to be the best day to do so.
I was 18, in my final year of high school and set to study law the next year, scholarship in hand. My mum has often fueled the fire of my passion for reading and loves sniffing out books on sale.
She bought me the book 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa by Stephanie Nolen. To be honest, my initial unspoken reaction was, Not another AIDS story… being tired after twelve years of schooling which invariably involved AIDS-talk in one or more subjects.
Turns out that the book gripped me from the first page (and I am not normally fond of reading prologues).
At the time of publishing, there was an estimated 28 million people living with AIDS on this continent. Thus, one story for every million. There maybe more, there may be less. It is hard to tell.
There are stories about AIDS orphans, about the people who foster the AIDS orphans or, sadly, the older siblings who have to look after the babies at much too young an age. There is a story of a truck driver who reckons he has slept with at least 100 000 women in his lifetime. Then there are the stories of those ostracised for their status. Those who have been assaulted for something they sometimes unwittingly received from an unfaithful partner.
But the stories that really caught my eye were those of the people working with the disease. Like the nurse in the DRC who literally dodges bullets to give her patients their ARVs. And the patients who turn around from the brink of death.
Nolen captures a complicated reality with excellent choice of words. I had never before been so fascinated in the lives of others.
And suddenly I wasn’t irritated when someone brought up the topic. Because I realised that we talk about AIDS too little, and when we do talk about it, we focus on the wrong things.
I have loaned this book to several of my medschool friends, and they have all loved it. My mother, a social worker, loved it too. What makes it great as well is that the short sectioned stories are perfect for someone who doesn’t have enough time to read a lot.
So, the next day I applied to a single medical school and when the acceptance letter came, I didn’t hesitate.
It is hard working in a world where HIV is so rife. I am in danger every time I draw blood. Every time I deliver a baby. It becomes difficult sometimes, working with a disease impossible to cure.
But I don’t regret reading the book, nor the decisions it lead to.