In 2008, Zhong Xiaowei was diagnosed with HIV. Believing that his life was effectively over, he waited around to die. He was still waiting seven years later when another test found that he wasn’t infected with the virus after all.
Zhong was born in 1963, the fourth of five siblings. When he was just seven years old, his father died of lung cancer, leaving his mother to support the family on the meager 28 yuan a month she earned working at a Chengdu bus company. In order to help put food on the table, Zhong was forced to quit school and start working.
Over the next few decades, Zhong worked a variety of low-end jobs, got into fights and some trouble with the police. He told The Paper that in 1996 he got bored and began taking heroin. A decade later, he had finally started to get his life straightened out. He had kicked his drug habit, opened a restaurant, and was planning to marry his girlfriend, a fellow former drug addict, in the spring of 2009.
Before getting married, the two agreed that they both needed to undergo medical examinations. Following his checkup, Zhong was told in December 2008 by the Chengdu CDC that his blood sample had tested positive for HIV. That result was later confirmed by the Sichuan CDC.
Zhong said that he accepted the horrible news without question, believing it was the result of so many years of injecting heroin into his veins. Afterward, his girlfriend left him and his family members broke off all communication with him — something that he took in stride.
“My relatives treating me this way had no effect on me. I was just waiting to die anyway,” he said.
He began to spend all of his time inside his shabby apartment with the curtains drawn, refusing to take any medicine, hoping to hasten along his demise. While awaiting the inevitable, Zhong said that he still couldn’t help but be afraid of death, never daring to sleep on his own bed, simply passing out on the couch each night for seven years. He said that he did think about suicide, but decided that he couldn’t bear the thought of what that might do to his mother.
During those years, he lived on a small government welfare allowance. To get that allowance, he had to report each year for a CD4 count, a test that measures how many T-cells are in a person’s blood. T-cells are a type of white blood cell that finds and destroys bacteria, viruses, and other invading germs. They are the main target of the HIV virus. As the infection progresses, the number of T-cells decreases.
It was during a visit to the Jinniu District CDC in December 2015 for his annual test that Zhong finally had a revelation. Sitting down in the waiting room, he began to read over some materials about HIV and found that he had exhibited none of the symptoms common with those who had been infected by the virus.
Baffled by what he had discovered, he went to the Huaxi Hospital of Sichuan University on Christmas Day for a blood test. The result was negative for HIV. The next month, the Jinniu District CDC confirmed that result. Zhong Xiaowei was HIV-free.
Just as bewildered, CDC officials retested Zhong’s blood sample from 2008 and found again that the result was HIV positive. Since he could not have simply become uninfected, officials said that the only explanation was that the original blood sample had not actually come from Zhong. Remembering CDC staff taking his blood and sealing it up, Zhong has accused the CDC of mixing up blood samples and ruining his life.
Earlier this month, he told The Paper that he was planning to sue both the Chengdu CDC and the Sichuan CDC, demanding an apology and compensation from both health organizations for all the pain that he had suffered.
It would seem that annual CD4 tests should have caught this error long ago. Though Zhong claims to have reported each year for the test, there are no actual records of the test being administered to him. Confusingly, Zhong says that each time he came in doctors were unable to take blood from his hand and that he always reported the situation to staff. A CDC official said that perhaps doctors were unable to get blood from Zhong’s hand because of his previous heroin abuse, however, they still should have been able to get it from elsewhere.
A similarly shocking and perplexing story made headlines last year when a Henan man was devastated to learn that he hadn’t been HIV positive for the last eight years after all in another apparent blood sample mix-up leading to a misdiagnosis at a government healthcare center.
[Images via The Paper]