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  • Writer's pictureL.J. Singh

When I refused to be Test Guinea-pig

Updated: May 7, 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons, but the most important ones for its control and containment are tracing the infected and their true Testing. In this respect, an incident with me has again reminded me of the ordeal I had to go through in a hospital in 1977.

During my long sea service in the Indian Merchant Navy, with The Scindia Steam Navigation Company, Bombay, a pioneer in Indian shipping I was on a voyage to UK & European Continental ports. After discharging and loading at many other ports on the Continent the last one being Rotterdam in Holland, our ship was in the UK for loading at its different ports before returning back to Bombay. While my ship was loading at Tilbury, near London, my cousin and her husband motored down from a nearby town, Portsmouth, to meet me at my ship. They stayed with me for few hours, and since my ship was to stay a few more days for loading, I accompanied my relatives to their home and stayed there overnight.


Since for the last few weeks, I had some recurring health problems and had to ask for some medical advice in earlier visited ports. I restrained myself from overindulgence in enjoying their homemade delicacies. But I really had a good time at their home, talking about matters like my daily routine on the ship and my back home in Amritsar. The next day my relatives duly dropped me at my ship somewhat in a better spirit than I was before meeting them. From Tilbury port, our ship was next in another UK ports, Avon mouth, Liverpool and then in Bristol, where I again started having bouts of shivering and fever, alternately, like Malaria.

Since our stay there was for a day only. The port medical officer gave me some medication but advised me for getting myself thoroughly examined in my next port of call, Dundee in Scotland. On my ship's arrival at Dundee, there was no improvement in my health, the doctor who was called to examine me. He recommended my immediate isolation and admission to a hospital because he feared that I might have been infected with some tropical disease.

Since our ship's stay in the port of Dundee was quite a long one. All arrangements for my admission to King George V Hospital were completed, and I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. At the hospital, many tests were carried out. But no exact cause of my ailment could be ascertained, till my blood sample was sent to a specialized tropical diseases laboratory in London, which confirmed that I am suffering from an amoebic infection of the liver. This is caused, as per medical views and opinion, by the presence of faeces on leafy vegetables like spinach and horse-radish etc., which we in Punjab relish a lot as vegetable and or salad.


As my treatment was going to last at least for a couple of weeks, I had to be signed off from the ship, and hand over the charge to my Second Engineer, till my replacement, another Chief Engineer, was sent by Bombay Head-office. Here another technical problem cropped up, as my Second Engineer didn't have a Certificate of Competency, the qualification required for the rank of ship's chief engineer, so the Second Engineer was given a special dispensation by the port authorities to sail as an acting chief engineer till the next port where my replacement was to join. In the hospital, I was kept in an isolated room because of my infection which, way back was classified as a tropical and much-feared disease, like Malaria in some countries. But before and after the start of the prescribed medicines like HCQ and metronidazole (Flagyl). To control amoebic infection, my blood sample was taken for clinical tests.


But when I noted that my blood is being taken too often, sometimes every few hours, I asked the doctor who was attending to me. He explained that some medical college students/interns were taking my blood sample, for their own study, this frequent pricking, needle poking in the veins discomforted me a lot. It became such a painful and disturbing matter for me, when another young girl student came and started preparing me for the blood sample, even without asking for my consent. I, a patient, became quite impatient, and told her off - "No Madam, please go find another Guinea-pig elsewhere for your tests", I refuse to be the one. She yanked off the strap around my upper arm and left mumbling some words in her native language, I presumed from her harsh tone. But the matter didn't end there, after some time she along with some other students came outside my room and told the medical staff attending me that they won't allow them to treat me, as I have hurt the religious sentiments of the lady who was refused to take the blood sample.


The crux of the matter was that she being a Muslim, was offended by the word pig, which is considered taboo by some in that religion. When it was explained by the Hospital Medical Superintendent, that the word Guinea pig is not referring to the pork meat of a pig, but it refers to a rodent that is used for clinical tests. There was a sort of truce, and the matter was put to rest, I willingly gave the blood sample, to the now very much smiling student. And whenever she passed by my room, she made it a point to clarify that she hasn't come for the blood sample from the Guinea pig, but just to wish me an early recovery.


In these days of the pandemic crises the recognition of the importance of HCQ, in its possible efficacy for Covid cure, has brought back the memory of my own recovery from amoebic infection of the liver by its along with the Flagyl's use for few weeks. My treatment at Dundee hospital lasted for about seven weeks. After which I was discharged and flown back to Bombay. Where my company's doctor advised me, some convalescence leave before joining back to resume my duty on another ship.


This episode was well forgotten all these years, but the importance of testing the infected person sent me back to my memory lanes. Thanking you.


Written By-

Lal Singh

Retd. Chief Engineer (IMN)


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