At my infectious-diseases clinic in Southeast Washington, I work with some of the city’s most indigent patients. Some don’t have jobs, a home, a car or enough to eat. But recently, I saw a patient whose problem made these issues seem trivial.
Dealing with fatigue, a cough and a fever for several months, this woman in her 40s had been evaluated by four internists. They had tested her for a variety of conditions but not HIV. Each had recommended rest, two prescribed antibiotics, and one suggested an over-the-counter cough medicine. Experiencing no physical relief from these suggestions, the woman had decided to “lay down and die.”
However, after her longtime partner insisted she get medical help, she agreed to go to a hospital emergency room. After a rapid test, which she initially refused because she said she was not at risk for HIV, she learned that she was HIV-positive.
After that ER visit, she brought her partner, whom she credits with saving her life, to my clinic to be tested; she was concerned that she had transmitted the virus to him. He tested positive. About a week later, when he accompanied her to an appointment with me, I asked if he had been seen by a doctor to discuss treatment. He said no and indicated that he wanted to establish care in the clinic.
When I asked if he had ever been on HIV drugs, he gazed at the medication chart and pointed out his previous regimen, a cocktail that contained indinavir. Because I and many other doctors stopped prescribing this medication a decade ago, I knew he had been keeping his condition from her for years. He stopped talking and avoided my gaze. It was clear he knew that I had learned his secret. I had many questions for him; but this visit was for her.
It was not the right moment to dredge up this history and ask how he could keep his diagnosis hidden while watching his partner struggle with her health. I chose not to ask about his dishonesty, their relationship and whether they had used condoms to protect her from getting HIV. At this point, I needed to help her understand that, even though she felt weak and sick, the medications would soon make her feel better. And that, with the right treatment, she could still live a long life.
While talking with my patient about her treatment, my mind kept wandering back to her partner’s secret. Was it my role to admonish him in front of her, or would that make things worse? What would they say to each other when they got home? I wanted to discuss these questions, but did I have a right to insert my judgment into this situation? At a private visit with me two weeks later, she let me know that this was the moment she realized he’d been keeping his diagnosis from her for years.
As a physician, I am not allowed to reveal any medical information about my patients or their circumstances without their written permission. This confidentiality is sacred. But in this case, that constraint felt inappropriate and irresponsible.