World AIDS Day

December 1st is World AIDS Day. There are many health topics that I teach on, but this topic is one that’s close to my heart.

Instead of giving the basics of HIV/AIDS, I’ve decided to use this post to share personal stories of HIV/AIDS from my point of view as a woman, as a former HIV tester and counselor, and as a community member/loved one.

Getting Tested

“Do you want to be tested for HIV?” Whenever I’m asked that question, I say yes without hesitation, but inside my heart starts racing and I think back to the times I was foolishly “in love” and didn’t practice what I preached.

I have my blood drawn and wait for my lab results to be posted, constantly checking to see what the results will be. Contracting an STD when I was younger puts me on the edge, especially knowing that having an STD put me at a higher risk of contracting HIV. I think back to when I last had an HIV test and the last time I was sexually active before deciding to practice abstinence. I tell myself that I’m okay. I tell myself that everything will be fine.

After 1 – 2 days, I get my test results back… “negative.” I’m relieved, and forgive myself again for not asking my previous partners questions. Monogamous on my end, but not on theirs. This is the reason why I tell others to get tested even if they are in a monogamous relationship… even if they’re married.

Get tested, even in a monogamous relationship. Married? Still get tested!

Being an HIV Counselor

“You are not going to actually test your partner for HIV, you are only going to practice the steps for doing an HIV test. Someone who was tested in class found out that they were HIV positive. We don’t want that to happen here.” To get my HIV Tester and Linkage to Care certification, I was required to complete a course that would help prepare me for the real world of HIV testing.

For reasons I’m still trying to figure out, I’ve been drawn back into the field of HIV/AIDS time and time again. Throughout different seasons of my life, I’ve taught about practicing abstinence and safe sex, but actually conducting HIV tests would be something completely new to me; and after hearing my trainer tell the story of how one student found out that she was positive during a training, I wondered how I would tell someone that they were positive and how they would react in return.

“Tonja, look at this.” I walked over to my co-worker and looked at the rapid HIV test she just ran. “He was here a few weeks ago and was negative. He told me he isn’t sexually active.” She ran his test again to make sure it wasn’t a false positive. The results were the same.

I stood near as my co-worker explained the results to the older adult sitting across from her. He looked confused. She filled out the rest of his paperwork, explained the test was showing that he was positive for HIV and someone would reach out to him.

I tested people time and time again without having to break the news to anyone that they were positive. I wondered what this older gentleman was thinking when he heard, “HIV positive.” Weeks prior, I was speaking to him and his buddy, telling them that older adults are at risk of getting HIV. That even if they didn’t have to worry about getting anyone pregnant, they still had to think about STDs. I stood there wishing there was something I could do as he quietly walked away.

“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2016, nearly half of the people in the United States living with diagnosed HIV were aged 50 and older. Many HIV risk factors are the same for people of any age, but older people are less likely to get tested for HIV.”

National Institutes of Health, 2020

Having an HIV Positive Community Member/Loved One

“Aren’t you afraid?” Someone once asked me when I told them that I’ve worked with people with HIV/AIDS. Am I mindful when testing or if someone has an open wound? Yes, but not afraid. I’ve embraced and been embraced by those with HIV & AIDS. We’ve shared laughs and stories.

A few months ago, I wondered how my Mamas at Lifted Strong were doing. I spent an incredible week with them last summer as I volunteered as an HIV Support Worker for the organization. I went to their Instagram page which led me to the managers page, it was there that I found out that Mama Anna had passed away. I thought back to the brief moments we spent together, and the laughs we shared as she tried to interpret my version of Kisawhili.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve met or known someone who has passed away from complications due to AIDS. Years prior, I learned that a member of my Peace Corps mentor’s People Living with HIV/AIDS group had also passed away. Then weeks later learned that the Peace Corps staff member who shared her story with volunteers had also passed away. As she told her story, I thought about how strong she looked. Even before Peace Corps, AIDS hit close to home. I overheard my mother discussing an old family friend’s diagnosis and how he died because of complications related to AIDS.

Whenever I think of those I’ve encountered with HIV/AIDS, those who have shared their stories, and even those I’ve tested who were relieved when they received a negative test result, I am reminded to appreciate the life that I was given, to love hard, to educate others, and to make better choices.

This post is to honor those who share their experiences to educate and support others. And to honor the Annas of this world. Those who fought as long as they could but lost their life to the disease.

Contact your doctor or local health department to learn about HIV testing in your area.

For more information on HIV/AIDS, visit WHO and UNAIDS.

Resources:

AIDS Healthcare Foundation – Provides HIV & STD testing

National Association of County and City Health Officials – Health department directory

HIV.gov – Information on HIV/AIDS

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