I should declare before I write anything else in this post that I hate doctors, hospitals and medical procedures in general. It’s understandable… I’ve had far too much to do with them in my life thus far. Not personally but because of loved ones and sometimes the occasional bouts of sickness.
Last month, however, I was basically persuaded (I take a lot of persuading when I don’t want to do something… I’m more obstinate than any mule) to go for an HIV test by my lecturer. Okay, so he pretty much managed to get the entire building to go and get tested but I’m harder to convince…
You see, last year, when our university’s special HIV health staff visited our Roeland Campus, I utterly refused to be ‘tested’. I lined up outside the room with my friends, listened to the cheery German assistant outside explain about the effortless, quick testing process and even watched as she gave some safe-sex/(female) condom demonstrations (sometimes I am so grateful I’m not the type of person to blush and run for cover when sex is mentioned) but I never went in.
I know that you don’t necessarily need to have sex to contract HIV and we’re all technically at risk of it, especially in a country like South Africa, and yes, it frightens me to think that one moment’s carelessness can result in an entirely life-changing scenario, which can literally almost shatter your world but well, I hate anything medical and what the hell… I couldn’t possibly have anything. I’m careful and responsible. I don’t seem particularly unhealthy, surely I’d know if I had something like TB or HIV, right?
Here’s the thing though… people always say that about cancer too but sadly, that whole “It’s something that happens to other people and not to me” thing just doesn’t always hold true for all of us.
So maybe I was putting myself at risk, not getting tested… I’m not a child any more and as much as I like to think I can avoid clinics, doctors and hospitals all my life, I can’t. There are some things you just have to face when you hit your teens and most especially, your early twenties.
I reasoned I would get tested with my future spouse someday… but what if I never get married? What if I contract something and put everyone I’m ever with at risk? What if I am seemingly healthy on the outside but there’s some sinister undercurrent bubbling undetected internally?
So maybe that’s why I felt like a coward for not going again this year. Maybe deciding to become an organ donor (another thing I had put off for so long out of fear and possible outside judgement) and realising that just because something can be life-changing and a little daunting, does not mean we should not face it head on, had changed my views somewhat. Sometimes, waiting means dooming ourselves (and others) to irreversible consequences and damning our own odds in life.
This year, when my lecturer practically verbally dragged me out of our computer lab (probably because he knows me all too well and wasn’t fooled by my low profile and stillness whenever he’d come in and ask who hadn’t yet been tested), I immediately started to protest outside.
“Please, I don’t want to get tested… I’m fine,” was something I probably uttered. The usual excuse of ‘I’m good’ that translates into: “I’m scared.”
He turned around to searchingly look at me and after a moment’s pause, asked outright: “Why don’t you want to get tested?”
“Because I don’t want them asking me all those questions about my sexual history. That’s too personal.”
Sure, okay, I don’t blush easily but that doesn’t mean I like to unpack my dirty laundry and intimate personal details to total strangers any more than the average joe.
I know they see and hear everything and keep it purely confidential but hey, some things are private even so and I knew it would have been unreasonable for me to expect them to exempt me from the standard questions.
Ah, the truth at last… There was no lying about one of the two main reasons I could actually bear to admit. He told me simply to tell them not to ask those then and I trailed after him down the passage to the testing room.
What is the other reason, you might wonder? It’s a foolish and childish one but it was real to me… and it was enough to hold me back. I was, and this embarrasses me somewhat, scared of the result.
What if I had been so confident that I was HIV-free only to find out, in fact, that I actually have HIV? How would that impact on my young life? How would I break the news to loved ones and handle the unnecessary and senseless stigma that still permeates throughout global society?
More than that though, I’m extremely paranoid about certain things… I haven’t yet pulled my act together enough to donate blood because I am scared that something will go wrong and one dirty needle will result in my contracting some blood disease or sickness.
I confess that I argued that, what if their equipment isn’t clean? What if they accidentally use something on me that had touched someone who had already tested positive and it infiltrates my bloodstream? What happens if I contract HIV through testing?
There. That says enough of my paranoia and fear, of my naivety when it comes to things like this… and that’s what I realised that day: we can’t truly understand or disprove something if we don’t actively take the plunge ourselves. No matter how many people assured me it was entirely safe and completely confidential, I didn’t believe them, not really. I had to face it myself and I did so very reluctantly.
Even as I waited outside, my chin set stubbornly as I continued to sulk and tried not to wonder when my turn would come, I began to stage another protest.
“How can it be private if so many people go into that small room at once?” I asked my lecturer.
“There are tents inside. No one will be able to see or hear anything.”
That silenced me… how could I argue with that, especially as just at that moment, I was called inside?
At the door, the outside staff greeted me and reassuringly pointed out my personal tent to me. I disappeared into the canvas depths and sat down at a small table, across from a lady who quietly and warmly welcomed me inside before she stood up to zip the tent entrance firmly shut.
I couldn’t hear a thing of the outside from in there really, not even the people talking loudly in the corridor so I knew I was foolish to imagine anyone would ever hear a word of our hushed conversation.
As soon as we were safely sheltered within, she handed me a form and asked me to fill in a few basic details. My name and surname, my address, my course and date of birth… I think. I can’t really even remember, if I am honest. At that point, hell, I was nervous. I didn’t show it but maybe she could tell.
“Is this your first time being tested?”
“Here we go,” I thought somewhat waspishly even as I said it was. “Here come the questions… She’ll shortly know more about my sex life than I do.”
She nodded and asked if I had any HIV knowledge. I said I did and she left it there. Phew, okay, not so bad, maybe she won’t ask anything else…
Nope, there they were, right on time: the questions about whether I had any TB symptoms and, if I remember right, whether I had engaged in any sexual activity in the last three months.
Regardless of my answers, I knew she would not pass judgement. She was entirely tactful and not the type to fuss or pass judgement on the so-called ‘youth of today’ like everyone else over thirty-five. I could probably have sarcastically joked and told her I engaged in illegal sexual acts and she wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.
There was something really reassuring about that… the only other time anyone had tested my blood for something (my iron levels, in that instance), I had basically been interrogated and asked none-too-subtly if I wasn’t maybe pregnant because my symptoms could indicate that.
Needless to say, I was nineteen and not too impressed by that… especially not when the medical practitioner then made some comment about my weight and asked if I had been ‘fat’ (because overweight isn’t satisfactory, right?) in the past. Seriously? Who does that? You just accused me of being pregnant and formerly fat in the space of two sentences… Small wonder I blatantly refused to go near a doctor or nurse for three years after that, much to my parents’ angst.
This is something that not all medical professionals seem to ‘get’ but it is important to be accepted, not judged when you undergo embarrassing or scary medical tests and this was no different. Naturally, I relaxed quite considerably after that.
“How long will I need to wait to know my status?” I asked, trying to sound brave and untroubled, even though I was too distracted to hear her answer and asked her the same question twice.
“In about five minutes you will know your result.”
Wow. Five minutes and one tiny (okay, not so tiny, it pinched me like hell) prick with a device – known as a ‘lancet’ – and a small absorption of my blood into the micro pipette (I did have to google all this stuff afterwards) onto a tiny ‘space’ – and I would know my fate.
As I watched her gloved hands carefully open a new needle, which she prepped, and testing device (which I believe is called a ‘cassette’), I wondered how much my life could change in five brief (but agonising) minutes… quite significantly, when you think about it, really. I tried not to, my false bravado abandoning me.
Passing my right hand over, I watched her squash my index fingertip and carefully suck up just enough ruby red blood to place onto the cassette. (I have no fear of looking at my own blood but I apologise for the more squeamish among you reading this.)
Perhaps to allay my fears and pass the time, she explained how it works, indicating the ‘space’, which has a kind of meter on it as I pressed a thick clump of fluffy cotton wool against my bleeding finger.
She told me how, if it didn’t change colour and climb upwards to a certain point, which she marked out with a pen, I would know something was amiss. If it went well above, I was in the clear. For now.
Though, rightly, everyone should be tested at least once a year – every three to six months if you are engaging in unsafe sex etc. – to be safe all the same, as she told me. CDC recommends that everyone between the age of thirteen and sixty-four get tested at least once, with more high-risk groups being advised to get tested more often.
Then, the moment of truth, she showed me my result and I got up and left. It doesn’t matter about the result, which I naturally cannot divulge… it simply matters that I went. It matters that I left that room either with a greater peace of mind or else with the necessary information and sources to tackle my status.
Either way, I could leave there more fully equipped to face my future in a better and safer way, both for myself and others. That carries a lot of weight… really it does. It’s something you can only understand and value when you have personally been tested.
That, if anything, is why I will now encourage everyone to go and get tested at least once annually… It doesn’t matter about your age or your background, your sexual history or pointed lack thereof… it matters that you get tested and know your status. That is all that matters at the end of the day.
I didn’t get one of the free ‘goodie bags’ (with safe sex pamphlets and free condom packs… which is a pity, because I really needed those fruity, flavoured condoms in my life. 🙂 ) but I got to conquer another human fear and in so doing, learned more about my personal health and trust me, those are two very good reasons to get tested if you need any!
For the next week, the blue bruising (which hurt every time I’d accidentally knock or touch it) and later, the tiny pinprick hole that adorned my right index finger was a reminder, a sobering one at that, that I was no longer a careless bystander in my adult life, but rather someone who cared enough about myself and others to know my status and lead a more proactive life as a result.
I am so grateful that I went now and I’m especially grateful to my lecturer and the kind, thoughtful staff who encouraged me to get tested… and next time they visit our campus, I’ll line up and go all over again.
I hope that you will too… it’s something we, each and every one of us, should do. For more expert information and HIV/AIDS tips, please click here.
Thanks to http://www.aids.gov for the additional information and to Google Images for the additional photos used in this post.
[For personal reasons, I have tried to be as anonymous and respectful as possible and whilst I have tried to impart accurate information and facts from memory and online research where possible, I have nevertheless written this in my usual ‘voice’ and it is only loosely medical – as such, there may be minor errors.
Please note : All opinions, views and sentiments expressed herein are entirely my own and in no way reflect upon any other person or institution. Thank you.]
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