By Uvistra Naidoo
It’s 1 a.m. A young mother approaches me during my hospital shift. She asks if her 2-year-old son will survive the night. He has been given a diagnosis of severe tuberculous meningitis, months after her husband was found to have drug-resistant TB. We suspect the child acquired the infection from his father.
The mother was tormented by guilt and worried about her child’s future. The disease usually affects the lungs, but it can also strike the brain, kidneys and other parts of the body. How do I tell the mother that the fluid in her baby’s brain is terribly elevated and we need to drill holes into his skull to release the pressure? How do I tell her that, if he survives, he will probably have some brain damage and that the prospects that he’ll be able to lead an independent life are questionable?
For me, these moments are both a harsh reality and all too personal.
On Feb. 22, 2011, I was declared cured of a severe form of drug-resistant TB, which I contracted during my medical internship. It took three years, one week and one day for me to be released from the shackles of 23 tablets a day with additional intravenous medications.
I saw the fearful looks in my family’s eyes, wondering if I would make it through many a night. The fear was indistinguishable from what I see in the families of TB patients I treat today. Doctors and nurses resuscitated my ailing body, afflicted by almost every side effect known from the toxic drugs used to combat TB: Diffusely bleeding skin lesions. Liver inflammation. Severe limb pain and near immobility. Hearing loss. Depression and thoughts of suicide.
Since being cured, I have been forever changed. Odd as it may sound, I refer to TB as my greatest mentor in my work as a clinician and researcher against this scourge. But as I don my stethoscope each day, I also worry that this disease, caused by bacteria that can be spread through the air, will revisit my body.
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