She'd been having pain for a long time. A long time user of injected opiates (hospital heroin) nobody paid attention to her claims of pain. Discrimination at its finest -- recovering addicts on the methadone program can't have pain, clearly, or they're seeking drugs.
I met her alone, unable to speak, or breathe. I knew nothing about her except for the various acronyms that followed her like the two guards from the prison: HIV on HAART, HEPC, IVDU. I'll admit that she looked the part, skinny with no teeth left, scars from old injection sites, and very sick.
The side effect of forcing her to wait for health care was, of course, that her very real pain denoted a very real problem -- a perforation of the bowel, with fecal contents filling her abdominal cavity. Gradually she got sicker and sicker, until finally the nurses at the prison could no longer manage how sick she was, and she came into the hospital for evaluation, with a belly as large and hard as a boulder.
A couple of trips through surgery resulted in a long stay in ICU. I remember how hard it was to manage her condition, with anaesthesia ordering the same amount of medication for pain for her as they'd order for me -- less, even. This, in someone taking 200 mg of methadone a day, who can't take methadone while she's sick because her gut won't absorb it. No compassion for the drug addict, who hyperventilated to the point of unmanageability as we were completely hog-tied to prevent her from going through racking opiate withdrawal.
She calmed down when her husband appeared to visit. It was here that I got to know her as a person. She was unable to be expressive, sedated and critically ill. It was everyone else that talked about who she was, even the prison guards, who were sad to see her gone, as she was so sweet and kind that she had a calming effect on everyone around her.
Her husband held her hand, and spoke in soft, gentle tones. "She gave me HIV," he said, "but I fell in love with her anyway." His angel, she was beautiful to him. There wasn't this overtone of filth and disease that seems to somehow worm its way into our brains regarding drug addicts, rehabilitatable or not.
They'd recovered together, out of a desire for a better life. He had quit cold turkey, despite taking more methadone daily than she had in addition to his recreational use. He locked himself in a room for a week and endured the pain most people will only pretend they know about, and even then only when those people are using their mass-media gleaned knowledge from a point of sanctimony. They recovered from drug addiction, from their former lives, choosing to treat their HIV in a healthcare environment where doing so wasn't as easy as it should be. They travelled to the isolated, rural North, teaching the forgotten people about the dangers of HIV and STIs, of drug use and a lack of self-respect. They spoke frankly, and used their illnesses as a warning to the healthy. "We thought we were invincible too."
She took shape as a person in my eyes, through his, in a way that made me realize how hollow the previous conception I'd had of her was. Her family, some of them I recognized, some of them friends of mine, who all loved her as I'd love my own flesh and blood. We were the only ones who had forsaken her. She had cleaned up her act long before she'd entered the prison system, reforming her life while on the run for drug possession.
It's in all of her triumphs that I find myself saddest that she didn't do well. I won't see her family again, to find out the rest of the story. My privileged window, enlarged by her family's affection from the pinhole it began as, is shut just as surely as it was opened: all that I had was a glimpse. I will still hear people ask how anybody could love "someone like that," and I will think about her, and remember how she was, to me, a flesh-and-blood representation of why: because she's human, and so am I.