“Praise Jesus!” the mother cried out as she bore down one last time, her husband gripping her hands, as she pushed their fourth child in five years, their first girl, into my lap. As I laid her new baby up on her breasts, she sobbed and repeated over and over, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, thank you…”
It was this prayer that marked as memorable an otherwise unremarkable labor, this prayer which transcended the usual flood of blood and amnion pooling at my feet, this prayer that somehow sealed this family’s destiny.
As a witness to this birth in 1982, I was only aware of the blessing I felt being part of the beginning moments of a new life. I could not have known the vague and unremitting symptoms of fatigue and muscles aches this woman experienced before and during her pregnancy were not just those of a weary mother of young children. In addition, her husband, a hemophiliac, along with his chronic joint arthritis from recurrent bleeding episodes, had troubling chronic fatigue and weight loss as well as frequent respiratory infections. Two of their children seemed to always be sick with something. No diagnostic test, nothing I nor my colleagues could think of, explained this family’s struggles.
As believers in the power of prayer and alternative approaches to healing rather than traditional medications or vaccinations, these parents were certain it was too much yeast in their diet causing the problem. They tried elimination diets, tried antifungal medications, tried homeopathy. Nothing made a difference.
This new baby girl seemed a hopeful sign that everything might be restored. Instead, her birth marked the beginning of the end.
Sitting at my desk some time later, buried in stacks of medical charts, her father’s chart was placed strategically on top, marked with a note from my nurse: “Call the Blood Bank ASAP.” When I called, I was transferred to the Director, who, in a carefully rehearsed and unemotional voice informed me my patient had tested positive for a new viral test that had become available. He had tested positive for a virus transfused into him from contaminated blood products, and the Blood Bank was recommending all his family members be tested for this new virus called HIV—Human Immunodefiency Virus. Could I call the family and make those arrangements please?
I sat stunned, knowing only too well what this meant. I had already taken care of several dying patients, previously healthy young adult men, who had the symptoms described initially as Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disorder (GRID), and now, with new reports of hemophiliac patients showing similar symptoms, the name of the syndrome had been changed to “Acquired Immunodeficiency Disorder (AIDS)” . It wasn’t just sexually transmitted, not just a “gay disease” as originally thought, it was blood borne as well.
The rest of the family was tested. All were positive except the oldest son. Untested blood products transfused into the father had infected him, then sexually transmitted to the mother, and passed during pregnancy or breast feeding to the youngest three children.
There was no known treatment and no hope for cure. All that was left, all they ever had, was prayer.
Their church community rallied to care for them as the disease took them, one by one. Their oldest son, spared by an inexplicable grace, was entrusted to extended family.
Remarkably, despite their desperate circumstances, this mother and father continued to pray aloud, as they had at their childrens’ births, through those same childrens’ illnesses and deaths, then later during their own descent into the hell of this disease. Until the very end, they continued to pray an inexplicable prayer:
“Thank you, Jesus, may your gracious name be praised.”