Feature

Killer Virus

After looking at death, he chose life

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He could barely get out of the pickup when his family brought him to the hospital. He found it too painful to move quickly, so slowly, slowly, he edged to the back of the truck and slid his legs off the tailgate. When his parents tried to help him stand by supporting his arms, he cried out. They helped him anyway, and the three shuffled into the emergency room at Bongolo Evangelical Hospital in Gabon.

Ansel was 17 years old. For three weeks he had experienced recurring, burning fevers that left him shivering and exhausted. His entire body ached—especially his muscles—and several days earlier his biceps, calves and right thigh had swelled to twice their normal size. The pain was continuous and excruciating, and he had not slept in days.

Dr. Kakalo, senior surgery resident, was the first to see Ansel and diagnosed multiple intramuscular abscesses. He scheduled the young man for surgery later that day. Kakalo and another resident gave Ansel a general anesthetic and drained five of the deep abscesses. The pus, golden and tinged with blood, filled a two-quart basin.

Within days, Ansel’s fevers stopped, his appetite returned and his pinched, anxious features softened. The good nursing care and antibiotics he received aided in the process. But I was suspicious—teenage boys do not usually develop large, intramuscular abscesses. I tested him for HIV, and the test came back strongly positive. Ansel had AIDS, and we had no miracle drug with which to treat him.

Death Wish

It was still painful for Ansel to walk, so I went to his room to give him the news. Ansel’s mother and father sat on the end of his bed; Pastor Pascal, the hospital chaplain, and I sat on chairs facing them. I began by quietly explaining that Ansel’s disease was not a simple infection but the result of a prolonged attack on his immune system by a hidden virus called HIV. It rendered him susceptible to infections his body would normally be able to resist and overcome. I told them he had AIDS, and asked Ansel if he understood what I was saying. He nodded but did not speak.

Pascal took it from there, explaining that the hospital staff could help Ansel with prayer, medical knowledge and hope in God. The teen and his stunned parents didn’t hear a word Pascal said. After a few minutes of silence, Ansel slowly turned his body until he faced the wall. We answered the questions his parents asked, prayed with them and promised to come back the next day to talk.

When we returned, he was still facing the wall. He would not talk, and he refused to take his medications or eat the food his mother had prepared. He made no effort to sit up or get out of bed. Nothing anybody said could make him respond. Ansel had given up on life and had decided to die.

It took only three days for him to develop a bedsore, and several days after that Ansel’s parents reported that they had tried to get him up, but his legs were stiff and seemed paralyzed. Despite our best efforts to help him, Ansel was steadily and surely moving toward his goal.

Life Giver

Helen, a second-year student in the hospital’s nursing school, was working in the surgery ward that week and was assigned to take care of Ansel. She encouraged him to get up, eat and take the medications we had prescribed to help him recover from the infection. Although he remained silent she continued to talk, and eventually told him how God had changed her life and proved Himself to be real and powerful. Ansel showed no sign of hearing her.

The third day Helen came and talked to Ansel, he suddenly said, “Why do you bother? Don’t you understand I have AIDS? Don’t you know I’m going to die?”

Surprised, Helen stopped what she was doing and said, “I bother because I know that God knows who you are and loves you. He didn’t just die for my sins but for yours, too. And He can help you just like He helped me!”

Ansel turned away from the wall and listened to Helen. Finally, he asked, “How can I have what you have?” She smiled and told him the simple gospel story—a story of grace, mercy, forgiveness and love that has not changed in 2,000 years. That day, Ansel identified himself with Jesus Christ, was forgiven of all the wrong he had ever done and was adopted into God’s family.

The next day when I went on ward rounds, we found Ansel sitting up in bed, eating breakfast and smiling so broadly, I was afraid for his teeth. Within three days he was up and walking on crutches, and within a week his bedsore had healed so well that we allowed him to go home.

A month later when I saw Ansel again, he was walking without crutches. He had gained 20 pounds and, despite the fact that he still had AIDS, he looked astoundingly healthy. And he couldn’t stop talking about Jesus Christ. As far as I know, Ansel continues to do well and follow after God.

Eternal Efforts

Some people say it’s unethical for those who care for AIDS patients to talk about Jesus. People who have just learned they are going to die are at their weakest, vulnerable to suggestions. Those who want to protect these patients claim that talking about the Savior of the world is a form of unfair coercion. The most a physician, nurse or chaplain should do is to tell people who are without hope that there is a “Higher Power” who might be out there and who could possibly comfort them as they suffer, fall apart and eventually fade away into eternal nothingness.

If Helen, Pascal and I had told Ansel to put his trust in a Higher Power instead of Jesus Christ, today he would be dead and his soul would be in hell forever. But he’s alive, living with AIDS and knowing that someday he will die from it. He also knows that after he dies—as all of us will—he’ll pass from this world into another world, where the Creator will receive him as a child of the King. And there, Ansel will live forever.

Already, 17 million Africans have died from AIDS, and today an estimated 25 million Africans live with the AIDS virus. Every 25 seconds the virus makes its home in another African body. In five years, when many of those bodies die, there will be 40 million African orphans. In just one year, ten times as many Africans die from AIDS as died in one week in the South Asian tsunami of 2004.

Do all these people need to go to hell? If we believed that, I and all of our medical team members in Gabon and in clinics and dispensaries all over Africa would not be working day and night to care for these people. We wouldn’t be telling them that no matter what they’ve done, there is a God who has bought their freedom with the blood of His own Son, Jesus. Nothing would make God happier than to adopt every one of them into His family forever.

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