The outbreaks of Enterovirus D68 and Ebola have all of us worried. They are deadly, and we don’t seem to have a handle on how to cure them or stop their spread. It brings back so many memories of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Back then, I took riding lessons & leased a horse at a little stable in a small California town. There was a carriage house on the property that was rented out to a series of tenants who came and went, and didn’t necessarily have horses. At the time I was there, four people lived in the house, two single women and a married couple. At this time, the AIDS epidemic was still very new. No one knew much about it, who could get it, or how they could get it and why. People other than those who had engaged in relations with an infected person suddenly had it, like hemophiliacs, but no one was sure yet why. We only knew that it was deadly and somehow transmitted by blood. But was it only by direct transfer person to person, or was it transmittable by merely coming into contact with blood, as in a droplet on a non-sterile surface, or blood that had dried on a surface? No one knew. People were extremely cautious about everything, and suddenly no one really wanted to touch anybody who was injured.
I know that sounds overly paranoid to us now, but then people were really afraid, just as many are afraid of contracting Ebola. You couldn’t tell just by looking at a person whether they might be infected, and it’s still not possible. So, the prevailing feeling was not to take chances. If you’re not in a hospital or clinic setting, don’t touch anyone who’s bleeding. Period.
One day, at the height of this uncertainty, one of the boarders at the stable cut herself and was bleeding. It wasn’t a horrible cut, requiring a trip to the clinic and stitches, but it required more cleansing than a simple rinse under the hose. The stable personnel were not there; probably it was lunchtime, so the boarder went to the house, hoping someone was home.
One of the two single women was in fact home, and let the person into the kitchen, allowing the boarder to use soap and hot water, as well as supplying paper towels and clean Band-Aids. The cut was soon cared for and neither party thought anything of it. In fact, no one else might ever have known about it, except for one small detail. Neither one of the women thought to look for, or clean up, all traces of the blood.
Later that evening, the married nurses came home, and found the trail of blood leading up the dirt driveway and the cement steps leading to the kitchen door. When the husband heard the explanation, he went absolutely ballistic. The whole barn heard the shouting, and everyone came running to see what the fuss was. And the husband was shouting at the unfortunate roommate, "how could you be so careless? How dare you let someone who’s bleeding into my house? What’s the matter with you? We could ALL get AIDS and die from this!" And on and on.
No one knew what to say, they just stared at the husband and the roommate.
Finally, the husband ran out of air, and the roommate, asked in a tiny little voice, “What was I supposed to do, let her bleed?”
The husband yelled “Yes!”
There was a dead silence that lasted a very long time. Then the crowd dispersed, taking the bewildered roommate with them. The husband was left all alone to wash the cement steps, while the wife resterilized the entire kitchen.
If the CDC can’t get a handle on this quickly, the potential is there for this to be another epidemic like AIDS, where people are afraid to render aid or even touch each other, as Ann Frailey recently wrote in her post Compassion vs. Personal Safety (http://catholic365.com/article/220/compassion-vs-personal-safety.html). It would be good to ask ourselves if there have been times like these when we have allowed what we know, to interfere with what must be done. After all, the health care people in the situation at the barn were following the rules they knew. The people who failed to help the orphaned girl, in Ann Fraley's story, did so to protect themselves and their families. When is the right thing the wrong thing to do?