Thirteen years: A catheter and a shave

AIDS was… an illness in stages, a very long flight of steps that led assuredly to death, but whose every step represented a unique apprenticeship. It was a disease that gave death time to live and its victims time to die, time to discover time, and in the end to discover life.

~ Hervé Guibert

A catheter and a shave

Continued from… Anger and fear

On the doctor’s round the next morning, he prescribed Isaac tablets for the nausea. The doctor wanted to try it for 24 hours to see whether it would help Isaac to eat. The doctor was concerned that Isaac still had a fever, and the meds they administered, didn’t help to break it.

Unfortunately, the tablets didn’t work. Isaac couldn’t eat more than one or two small pieces of bread and mostly drank only half a cup of tea. After every meal, he was worn out. It took most of the little energy he had to sit up and make an effort to eat. Instead of getting better, Isaac’s condition was getting worse. He was less talkative than he was when he was admitted to the hospital. He had also stopped venting his emotions and concerns when he was alone with Annie.

On his fifth day in the hospital, a group of doctors had a meeting about Isaac’s treatment. They didn’t frequently treat HIV patients in this hospital and considered transferring him to the academic hospital in the city. They thought he might get better care there than they were able to give him. Nevertheless, after a phone call with the chief of the HIV ward at the academic hospital, they decided to keep him where he was. The doctors at the academic hospital could do no more for him than the treatment he already received.

To Isaac’s nausea prevented him from eating, the doctors scheduled him for the operating room the next morning, to insert a catheter into his shoulder. Through the catheter, Isaac would then get his food and medicine.

“But why in his shoulder?” Annie asked when the nurse explained the upcoming procedure to her.

“They place the catheter into the subclavian vein. We call it a ‘deep catheter’. It’s done in the operating room, because of sterility. As long as Isaac has the catheter, he can’t take a shower, also to prevent bacteria getting into his system. He’s too weak for the bathroom anyway. With the catheter in place, we will be able to give him his food and medicine. It will also give his pancreas a much-needed rest, which will in turn help us to fight the infection he has. He will get better much quicker.”

Annie still didn’t fully understand the reasons the catheter should be in Isaac’s shoulder, but she trusted the hospital staff and she knew they wanted to help Isaac. Moreover, Annie wanted nothing more than seeing her friend get better. It pained her to see him in the hospital bed, to see how sick he is. He slept most of the time, to weak to do much else. The evening visits were also too tiring for him, even though he made an effort to be part of the conversation.


Annie and Jacques arrived at the hospital together on the Isaac’s first Saturday in hospital. He had undergone the procedure for placing the subclavian catheter that morning. When they walked into his room, Isaac was sleeping. Annie stared at a big bag with a thick yellowish fluid hanging next to his bed. From the bag, a thick plastic tube ran towards Isaac’s shoulder where it disappeared under his pajama shirt. Annie was afraid that it might be her imagination, but somehow it looked like Isaac had some more color in his face.

They were there for about twenty minutes before Isaac woke up. Regardless of his somewhat better color, he was weak – weaker than he was in the last couple of days. Annie realized he at last dropped the act of pretending to be okay. She kissed his forehead.

“How are you feeling?” she whispered.
“I’m so tired. I only want to sleep.”
“Then do. We will come back this evening,” Annie said, but with a surprising strength, Isaac grabbed her arm.

“No, please. Don’t leave. Sit with me?”
Annie nodded.

“Jacques, may I ask you a favor?” Isaac asked.
“Of course you may, big fella,” Jacques said with tears in his eyes.
“Can you shave me?” he asked, and continued to explain: “The stubble is irritating me. It itches,” Isaac explained.

“I’ll shave you this evening,” Jacques promised and turned his attention to Annie. “I’m going to leave the two of you alone. Stay with Isaac. I’ll go home, cook dinner for the kids, and be back for visiting hours this evening, with the shaving gear,” he smiled at Isaac.

When Annie looked back at the bed after her husband had left, Isaac had fallen asleep again. Quietly she sat down on the chair in the corner. Staring out over the trees at the back of the hospital, she tried to suppress her sobs.


“Barber Jack is in the room! Where is my first customer?”

Jacques made a grand entry into the room after he had peeked through the crack between the door and the wall to see if Isaac was awake.

Isaac laughed. He was feeling more rested since he slept through the entire afternoon, but the weakness was still with him. Jacques wasn’t alone. He had brought Grace and Annie’s kids with him. Isaac was happy to see them all. The kids, who had been warned by Jacques that they should be quiet. They now stood next to the bed, not knowing what to say and if they could say anything at all.

Annie saw the uneasiness of her kids. She beckoned them to follow her into the hallway. Close to Isaac’s room was a special family corner. Annie sat down with her kids for a while hugging them close. They started watching one of their favorite programs together, and soon Annie left her kids in the family corner and returned to Isaac’s room.

When she entered the room, Jacques was just putting shaving cream on Isaac’s cheeks and chin. A big towel was draped over Isaac’s shoulders.

“Shall I remove your moustache too?” Jacques asked with a serious look in his eyes. Because of the shaving cream close to his lips, Isaac didn’t dare opening his mouth. He mumbled and shook his head, light panic in his eyes. Jacques laughed.
“Only joking, big fella! I’ll leave your moustache. Now, are you ready for this?”

Isaac nodded, and Jacques gently started to shave Isaac’s cheeks. He was busy for the better part of half an hour. Annie took a face cloth and rinsed it under warm running water. She wrung it out and then gently wiped the last of the shaving cream off Isaac’s face before she dried his face with a clean towel.

The shaving exercise had depleted the last of Isaac’s energy. He fell asleep even before visiting hours were over.

To be continued… Isaac’s condition improves

Note: This series is a rework of a self-published book (2009), rewritten for this blog, and in loving memory of a dear friend who suffered from and passed because of AIDS. Keep in mind this story happens in the late eighties and throughout the nineties. Names of characters have been changed to protect their privacy.

© Rebel’s Notes
Image from Pixabay

7 thoughts on “Thirteen years: A catheter and a shave

  1. I can imagine Isaac’s relief at being de-prickled. And I’m sure, even after such a short time, you weren’t imagining the colour in his cheeks when you first arrived N xx

  2. unfortunately I have no doubt about it getting worse but I will read it to the very last word and I will continue to cry. It’s such a small token by comparison to the suffering Isaac went through every minute. I admire your strength to find the courage to write his story. Tissues are here by the box full. xox

  3. I second what Gemma wrote… I cry with each new segment. Lots of love and hugs your way. I know this was a long time ago…but imagine the pain is still with you <3

    1. I don’t think I will ever be able to stop thinking about him, and what he had to endure. He was such a kind soul.

    1. Thank you for reading, Gem, and sorry I am making you cry with this. I’m afraid it gets worse, so keep your tissues near xox

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