Prepare patients to deal with diagnosis results

Patients at a local hospital. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

A lifetime of training journalists has fuelled some moving stories, but few more so than an article written by one Tanzanian journalist that he sent to me for comment. It was the story of a clever lad who had been helped by the village and his grandmother to get to university, the hope of his community.He got to university and got a girlfriend too. All good. Until he went to a clinic and was told he was HIV positive. It seems he left that clinic in a daze, went, killed his girlfriend, and killed himself too.

It was a sad and pointless tragedy, fuelled by lack of support or information.

Of course, no one wants to be diagnosed with any health condition, although almost all of us will be at some point. Yet, very few of these diseases are worse than instant death.

In his case, hundreds of thousands of people now live for decades HIV+. Even cancer is more often cured than not. Yet, last week, in Naivasha, a mother of three children aged eight to 17 likewise killed herself, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, which is often curable or possible to move into abeyance: long enough, possibly, to bring that eight-year-old into full adulthood with a mother alive.

Such deaths, of course, are not truly the result of diseases, but of fear and despair. For a health blow is extremely frightening. Indeed, it’s a journey I have travelled only recently. Many years ago, I ended up in hospital having awoken one morning with my eyesight blurred. I learned much later I could as well have awoken blind from the same condition. But the damage was only partial and my brain quickly learned to piece together a view of the world that was in focus from the unaffected parts of my retina.


However, I shall never forget leaving that first hospital appointment having been told I would be blind within a few years. I remember vividly sitting outside changing rooms in a clothes store watching a woman as her son tried on his first suit. I literally stared, wide eyed, thinking I shall never see any son of mine try on any suit.

In fact, I did. The diagnosis was incorrect. The damage was a single hit, until last year. Then, off my eyes went again. This time a huge kink in the centre of my left eye’s vision ruled out reading of any sort, and my brain didn’t just find a way around the problem.

Back into the eye hospital system, now there were brochures, in huge type, titled ‘The Emotional Impact of Sight Loss’. They explained how depressed most sufferers get as their sight breaks down, and how some get suicidal.

And it was a relief to read. Because as my eyes began collapsing on me, soon my right eye too, there were times when I wondered if I could really face life with no vision, never to be able to see again. To be unable to drive, unable to read, how was I even to contemplate this adjusted life ahead?

However, science moves forwards. I was referred for eye injections, first to one eye then the other, and read on the internet that in 30 percent of cases they even restore eyesight. My consultant says it’s a higher percentage than that. Either way, I got nearly all my eyesight back, to the point that this weekend reading a PDF leaflet on my phone I realised it was literally perfect at smaller than six point.

Yet how much fear, how much despair? And how many people, right now, similarly terrified and destabilised in all they do? I know it affected decisions I took: I did some damage. But I didn’t die.

But the truth is that any health system that overlooks fear and does nothing to support patients with negative diagnoses will trigger depression, suicides and sometimes murders, which is not exactly the point of the Hippocratic Oath. Be it a leaflet, a counsellor, a strong lead to family: everyone needs support when they are facing health challenges. And with support, many will enjoy many more good years ahead.