“Not in this country,” the doctor said shaking his head and frowning, his hands planted deep inside his white-coat pockets. “Chlamydia only exists in third-world countries. Not in America.”
The doctor looked over the rim of his glasses at me, his forehead creased with puzzlement. He must have thought me odd: an American girl dressed as if from India, wrapped in a purple and orange sari with intricately woven golden borders, the bridge of my nose painted with a sandalwood-paste lotus petal, my forehead marked with U-shaped lines, red kumkum powder coloring the part in my hair, a red dot between my eyebrows. I held my newborn daughter, Krishna-Lila, in my arms; Suniti and her brother Kana skipped around us, their rubber sneakers squeaking on the granite tiles as they chased each other.
“My husband lived in India for a while,” I explained. “Is there a chance he could have gotten Chlamydia while he was there?” I looked down at my sleeping, infant child and lightly rubbed my thumb across her eyelids.
We stood in the foyer of Montefiore Hospital in Bronx, New York. My daughter, Suniti, had already been seen by at least a half-dozen specialists, but no one could tell me what was happening to her eyes. Suniti had been suffering from eye ailments since she was an infant, and now she was four years old. Her eyes were not getting better. Often, it would take up to thirty minutes for her to be able to open her eyes when she woke in the mornings as she adjusted to light and air exposure. Sun and wind caused pain. Much of the time, she squinted and covered her eyes. Now, my infant daughter, Krishna-Lila was scheduled for eye surgery. Her tear-ducts were clogged, and they would have to be probed. She wasn’t producing tears, and her eyes were swollen. She would need anesthesia for the procedure. She was less than one month old. Two daughters with eye problems: it seemed logical there might have been something common between the two of them. Both had been born in natural conditions with no eye treatments at birth, and I thought it was possible they could have contracted Chlamydia during delivery. My son had been treated with an antibiotic in his eyes as required by the birthing center where he was born, and he had no problems at all with his eyes.
At the time, Montefiore Hospital was one of only two hospitals in the United States doing research on Chlamydia. The other was the University of Washington Hospital where I had gone for prenatal treatment briefly during my first pregnancy, where I had agreed to participate in a study on Chlamydia, and where I had tested positive for the sexually transmitted disease. When the dozen or so interns and researchers had come to visit me in the exam room, they told me the disease causes pneumonia, glaucoma and blindness in third world countries; research was just beginning. No warnings were given when I was forced to change hospitals for insurance reasons, and nothing was said to me about treatment. I honestly did not think anything of it at all and did not know there was any danger. I myself had absolutely no symptoms. How ironic to have contracted a sexually transmitted disease when I was not even allowed to have sex!
The Hare Krishna philosophy was based on four principals: eat no meat, fish, or eggs; drink no alcohol and take no drugs (including caffeine); do not gamble; and remain celibate except for purposes of procreation within marriage. This meant that even within marriage, sexual intercourse was only permitted if the couple was intending to have a baby, and then only one time per month at the point when the woman was most fertile. The idea of love or physical intimacy in a marriage was frowned upon, and the arranged marriages in the Hare Krishna movement were intended to provide a bit of “licensed sense gratification” for a period, but within limits. During our seven-year arranged marriage, my husband and I had sexual intercourse ten times. We did not sleep in the same room, nor did we ever hold hands or show any affection toward each other.
Suniti, my oldest, had been less than one month old when I started to worry about her eyes. They teared constantly with yellowish discharge and crusting, and they were always bloodshot. I tried a honey solution and my own breast milk, but the symptoms persisted. There was an unwritten expectation amongst the Hare Krishnas that we should follow alternative forms of treatment rather than trusting modern medicine and procedures. We were encouraged to use naturopathic remedies, so I tried everything I could think of. I even sent a saliva sample to a naturopathic healer who told me that Suniti had herpes in her eyes, and there was no cure; she would likely go blind. I was desperate and terrified. The Hare Krishna philosophy focuses on the concept of karma, and we were taught that sickness was caused by our own sinful activities. I could not help but wonder if my child suffered because of something I had done in this life or in a previous life.
I had just turned twenty-two years old when I gave birth to Suniti. She was born in my Seattle apartment, on the floor, as I lay atop my sleeping bag. I had hired a licensed midwife to help me. When I first met the midwife, she interviewed me, asking about my health and my family history. She also asked me, again and again, “Are you sure this is what you want? Are you under the influence of the group you belong to? Do they say you must have your child at home? Are you sure?” I insisted I was not under anyone’s influence, that I wanted to have a natural, home birth, but I sensed she did not believe me. The truth was that I had been programmed to believe doctors were untrustworthy and modern medicine was a scam. I did not want to have my child in the hospital because I believed the programming. The midwife insisted I have back-up care with an OB/GYN doctor during my pregnancy in the event she deemed it dangerous for me to have a home birth. The only reason I knew about the Chlamydia was because I had back-up care.
Suniti was an overly fussy baby, but I thought she cried because she was hungry or wet or maybe colicky, so I fed her and changed her diaper and bounced her to quiet and soothe her. I never imagined her eyes were causing pain. Despite my distrust of modern medicine, I took Suniti to a pediatrician to see if he could help. The doctor diagnosed her with conjunctivitis and prescribed a topical medication for treatment. As long as I continued to put the medication in Suniti’s eyes, she seemed soothed. Her eyes stopped discharging, and they weren’t as bloodshot. As soon as I stopped the medication, though, the symptoms came back. The pediatrician sent us to a specialist, who said she had ulcers growing on her corneas, but he didn’t know how to stop them from causing damage. He sent us to more specialists for more tests. The doctors put florescent drops and shone lights in Suniti’s eyes, prying her little eyelids open, clenched shut because the light caused her so much pain, and we could see the little spots forming on the corneas right above the pupils. Three little dots on each eye eating away her corneas. No one could say what was happening. This went on for several years.
How many times I had explained that I tested positive for Chlamydia when I was pregnant with Suniti! My explanations and pleas fell on deaf ears until the doctor I met in the foyer of Montefiore Hospital finally agreed that it couldn’t hurt to test, even though he doubted me. Both daughters – and my son – had samples taken of the inner lids of their eyes. My daughters, in fact, did test positive for Chlamydia as I suspected. My son did not have the disease because he had received Erythromycin drops in his eyes, the cure for Chlamydia, when he was born. My entire family was prescribed to take Erythromycin for ten days. Immediately, the girls’ eyes started getting better. What a joy it was to see Suniti able to open her eyes when she woke in the mornings! How glorious to watch her swing on a swing-set without squeezing her eyes shut!