Coins on the Eyes of the Dead

by Gordon Nary

It is a custom in some cultures to place coins on the eyelids of the dead to keep their eyes closed. I remember my grandmother reaching into her purse for two shiny quarters that she subsequently placed on my grandfather's eyes after he died. I asked her why. She told me that it was a Magyar custom to close the eyes of the dead with silver because, if they remain open, we would see our own death captured in their eyes.

We do see something of ourselves in the eyes of someone who has just died. We see the fragility of life and of human connections. We see our own mortality. But there are physicians in Southern Africa and other epicenters of the pandemic who look into the eyes of thousands of children dying unnecessarily from lack of access to AIDS drugs. Watching a child die is a difficult challenge to physicians. The difficulty increases when the physician knows that such death is unnecessary.

Each time that a child dies unnecessarily from AIDS, the physician is reminded that no one in the world believed that the child's life was worth the few thousand dollars each year that it would take to purchase the drugs. The physician is reminded that there was no one willing to underwrite the costs to train that physician on how to use these life-saving drugs if they were available. The physician is reminded that this child may not have become infected if there was a commitment to support the education, counseling, drugs, and diagnostics to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV. The physician is reminded that it would take, in relative terms, only a few coins to save a child's life -- coins better spent to keep a child alive than to place over the eyelids of the dead.

We are defined not by what we say, but by what we do. If we are apathetic about the AIDS pandemic in Africa, it is because we do not respect the dignity and value of African lives. The enemy is not HIV. The enemy is our arrogance.

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