Wednesday, June 14, 2006

New Start

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the local New Start center, to experience being tested for HIV/AIDS in Namibia.

New Start centers are found in many Namibian cities. They provide low cost HIV/AIDS testing and counseling to anyone that walks through their doors. During the month of May, they offered free tests. I had been wanting to get tested for a long time, for two reasons:
  1. I was very curious about the process.
  2. I would find it hard to encourage others to be tested, if I had not gone through the process myself.
It was late in the afternoon when I found myself near the New Start Center. Shoni and I were waking home from town. The time seemed perfect, so I said "see you soon" to Shoni, and headed towards the Center.

I have no reason to think I have HIV. I have been celibate for a long while now, and my last HIV test was more than 3-months after my last escapade (there is an initial 3-month window of time after infection when HIV tests will show negative even though HIV is present). Even so, I felt myself becoming nervous as I approached the Center. I kept thinking "What would happen next in my life, if I found out I had HIV".

As I entered the Center, I was greeted by an intake worker. She was very pleasant. I felt as though she was surprised to see me; and I wondered how many white people came to the Center. I told her that I would like to be tested for HIV.

In her office, she created a case file for me, and recorded a small amount of information about me. In order to protect my anonymity, she did not ask me for my real name; rather, she asked me for an alias. My real name was not used on any of the paperwork. When the paperwork was completed, she showed me to the waiting room.

A few minutes went buy......a counselor came and collected me. Together we walked to a private counseling room. I was hoping she could not sense my nervousness.

We talked for about 15 minutes. She asked me to tell her what I knew about HIV, how it worked, and how it was contracted. I told her what I knew. She asked me a series of questions like: when I last had sex, and if I had used a condom. We talked some more about what I might do, and how I might feel if I found out today that I had HIV. She asked me who I was planning to share my results with. At one point, I had to sign a disclaimer using my thumb print (in order to preserve my anonymity). When the pretest counseling was finished, we walked to the small lab at the end of the hallway.

The HIV counselor calmly prepared the rapid test equipment. A constant stream of repeating dialogue cycled through my brain while she was preparing the equipment:

Don't be nervous; there is no way I can have HIV; talk calmly; make a little joke; I hope she doesn't think I am nervous; how would I feel if I were a young girl that had just had sex; don't be nervous; smile and say something intelligent...
Rapid tests are wonderful, because they only take 15 minutes to process. A quick finger prick, some dabbing of blood, a little small talk, and I was released back into the waiting room.

About 15 minutes later, the same counselor came and retrieved me. Together we walked back to our counseling room. I was amazed at how well she was able to show no indication of my status during our walk.
Once we were in the room, we talked for a while -- surprisingly I don't remember what we talked about. My recollection of the discussion begins at the point of her telling me the results of my test. I was immediately relieved. After a brief discussion about the results, we talked about the things I should do, and not do, to stay HIV free.

This entire experience was very powerful, and now, I keep thinking of how hard this process must be for someone who is afraid they might have HIV. I am heart seer for those people.

1 comment:

Will said...

That was a really cool thing of you to do. I've often wondered myself what the testing procedure must be like. I remember back home, when we got the obligatory HIV test for Peace Corps thinking it was funny that the doctor adopted a very serious demeanor when he told me the results. After living here I completely understand how difficult that situation really is when the virus is a much bigger part of your life.