I was 15, when the doctor told me, I would die,” says Sahil, 28.
At age 11, his family sent him to Mumbai from Bihar to live with his sister and her husband. In 1995, Sahil met with a road accident that changed his life. While in hospital, he was given 11 units of blood, of which, he realized later, at least some could have been infected.
Staying upbeat: Sahil runs a support group to help others like him. Pradeep Gaur/Mint photo
On being discharged from hospital, he returned home to his family in Bihar to recuperate. But things were not the same; Sahil found that he suffered from frequent stomach infections. A few months later, he tested positive for HIV.
“I was receiving blood when the diagnosis came in. The doctor walked into the ward and ordered my stretcher to be placed outside the ward. He said I had ‘a contagious disease’.” Sahil was a social outcast. “The villagers would not allow my mother to keep me home and I had to stay on the outskirts of the village under a tarpaulin,” he remembers. “The doctor had advised regular injections but no one would administer them.”
He then decided to seek treatment in Delhi. In 1997, with just Rs2,000, he left Bihar for good and spent the first four days on the platform at the New Delhi Railway Station. “I saw an HIV/AIDS hoarding outside the station with a phone number and decided to call to get information.” Sahil says his guardian angel, in the form of counsellor Vijaylakshmi, answered the call—and his life changed. By the end of the conversation, she convinced the boy who thought he was dying, that he could live for years.
Vijaylakshmi took him to a government hospital where he got counselling and within a month, Sahil’s health showed signs of improvement. The upbeat mood he saw among the doctors and counsellors was contagious. Sahil decided to learn more about his condition and how to keep himself healthy. He made sure he ate fresh, home-cooked food. He learnt never to miss a meal and even today, cooks his own food whenever possible to lower the chances of catching an infection. He knows the importance of including fruit in his diet and is particular about eating on time. He’s also particular about personal hygiene.
“You catch most infections from water and food so one must be very particular about hygiene as far as food is concerned,” he says.
He learnt about the precautions he needed to take and the importance of medication to keep his CD4 count, which is 240, high. “If you must take the medicine every 12 hours, don’t space out one dose to 13 hours. If you are regular with medicines, the first two lines of treatment can work for seven to 11 years each,” he says. In the 15 years or so that Sahil has been infected with HIV, he has seen a change in the battle strategy. “ART has changed lives. Earlier, it used to be costly but now the Delhi government provides both the first and second line of drugs free so more people have benefitted,” he says.
Sahil says that he is an optimistic person and once he got over the initial shock, he made a conscious effort to be cheerful and confident. “I had been so scared of dying until Vijaylakshmi gave me hope. I know now knowledge is power and that if I can survive, so can others.”
Also, he says having a purpose in life and becoming an HIV/AIDS counsellor have helped. Within months of arriving in Delhi, he launched a support group—Om Prakash Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS—with nine other people. He ran the group with funds from an Action Aid fellowship.
Today, his support group has a membership of 800 people of which 370 are children. The group provides counselling to those infected with HIV and also to their families.