Of HIV and UNO

I was 20 when they told me I was going to die.

This was not an existential revelation about the transitory nature of human existence. It was much more immediate and personal than that. They told me that my death was imminent.   In this instance, the ‘they’ were doctors, one of whom was the president of the Frankfurt, Germany mission in which I was living at the time. How did this come about? According to my diary for September 3, 1993, it started like this:

“I was in an accident. I was biking down the street (sidewalk) in Laemmerspiel when a car pulled out of basically nowhere and thumped me. I flipped over the car and landed on my head. I bled quite a bit and by the time the ambulance arrived I needed an I.V. (cool!)”

Well, like any dumb kid writing in a journal, I didn’t really take the time to preserve accurate details for posterity. I was hit by a car (an Italian man driving a Citroen, actually), and I did fly over the vehicle; I hit my head and lost consciousness for a brief time, having only vague awareness of the blood transfusion I received. Fast forward a couple of months and you find me, at Christmas time, battling pneumonia yet feeling no small excitement as I call home for the holidays, speaking with my family for the first time in a year.

“Did you hear about the German Red Cross?” My mother asked.

“I don’t get the news these days, Mom.”

“Apparently they accidentally distributed blood that was contaminated with HIV and Hepatitis C to German hospitals in your area a couple of months ago – when you were in the hospital. Merry Christmas!”

Okay, that’s not verbatim, but it’s closer to it than you might think…

According to this website, http://chealth.canoe.com/condition_info_details.asp?channel_id=0&disease_id=291&page_no=2, the odds of getting HIV from a blood transfusion are approximately 1 in 4,000,000. Apparently, the odds go up significantly if the hospital you are admitted to was mistakenly given HIV contaminated blood. Apparently they go even higher if the blood you receive came from the contaminated blood batch. I don’t really mind the 1 in 4,000,000 odds so much. The, “you have AIDS” odds that I was given, were less encouraging.

Thus I found myself a few thousand miles away from home, with pneumonia, and apparently AIDS (how do people with AIDS die, I asked rhetorically, PNEUMONIA!). The cherry on this particular sundae was the Dear John letter I received from a certain young lady, which I will discuss at greater length another time. It would be fair to say that I was a little ‘down’ at this point in time.

Fortunately, it was in this dark moment that I found the spiritual guru who provided me with a change in perspective that completely changed my life. His name was Shaun Frost, and he was a hockey enthusiast from Arizona with a prominent nose and already slightly receding hairline. He was the one who came shuffling through my apartment door, bearing Coca Cola and UNO cards, and uttering the phrase that changed everything: “Let’s play.”

Despite the ridiculous simplicity of this statement, this was a transformative moment for me. Dark nights of the soul still come, and I find myself often tempted to surrender to self-pity, cynicism, or even nihilism. But then I remember the dopey dude from Arizona and his UNO cards.

As the story ends, apparently they were wrong.  After months and months of more tests than I care to remember, it was determined that I was not HIV positive, either I had never been, or I ‘got better’ (they were never clear on that – doctors and Germans neither one liking to admit error).  But, while my life continues on 20+ years later, I hope to never forget the lesson: life goes on for a few more days, or a few more years, we cannot know.  So let’s wring the last drop of living out of that life.  Let’s laugh, love and learn.  Let’s sing in public to embarrass our children.  Let’s be open and honest with one another, but never cruel.

Let’s play.