By Joshuah Creswell, 2014-2016 Community HealthCorps AmeriCorps Member, Ryan/Chelsea-Clinton Community Health Center
Josh at his HIV testing station.
As a Community HealthCorps AmeriCorps member, I had given this test a few times before. I gave it in vans, churches, schools, and other odd places. This day, I was in a drugstore one block from Times Square. I stood at the door handing out flyers to passersby. I figured it would be a bust – too many tourists with shows to see and buses to catch were bustling through their day. It seemed futile to ask these people to set aside 20 minutes for an HIV test.
Flyer after flyer, I smiled and greeted people as they walked in. After a couple of hours spent explaining to people that I didn’t work there and did not know what was on sale, I needed to sit down. I switched places with my teammate and waited in the testing room for a willing participant.
Not long after I situated myself, a young man finally walked in. He was well mannered, attractive, and probably around twenty years old. He politely smiled and took a seat to start filling out registration paperwork. “It’s great that you guys are here today doing testing,” he said to me more than once. “Well, we get around. We test all over the city. It’s important to go out to the people and offer this service. Many people don’t know where to go,” I responded. “Or they are scared to go,” he added. “Very true,” I explained, “but it’s important for a person to know their status. That way, they can get the care they need if they are positive.”
Josh providing HIV education at a health fair during National Health Center Week 2015.
I started by asking some preliminary questions: “Would you hurt yourself if your test came back positive? Would you hurt someone else? Have you had any drugs or alcohol today?” These questions were simple but ones that not everyone answers ‘no’ to, signifying that the results could put them in danger. Fortunately, this young man did answer ‘no’ to everything, and I felt confident in giving him the test. I performed the simple finger prick to collect blood and started the clock on the test. Now came the part that always made me nervous – what do I do with the next 15 minutes while we wait for the results?
I began going through the counseling questions to take up some of the time. When I looked over at the young man, his head was down, his hands were on his knees, and he looked somewhat uncomfortable. “Have you been sexually active in the past 12 months? How many partners? Have you had sex without a condom?” I asked, noticing his face express increasing anxiety with each question. I could see what was going on in his mind. I had seen many people in this situation. He came in to take the test but had not really considered his risk factors until this moment.
Josh performing the finger prick HIV test.
“I’m sorry; I’m just really nervous. I hadn’t really thought about it until now that this could happen to me. I really did some stupid things,” he said while shaking and out of breath. I paused from my questions, put down my pen, and made eye contact. “Well, you’re doing the right thing today by getting tested. Whatever the results, you will be in a better position knowing your status. And it’s good to be aware of the times that you put yourself at risk, so you can learn from that and take more precautions in the future,” I explained earnestly.
There were seven minutes left. I provided some education on HIV and prevention, like that a person with HIV can live a healthy and long life if they follow through with treatment. All the while, he glanced periodically at the test as if it were a judge about to hand a sentence and reprimand him for the things he had done. With five minutes to go, we chatted about a concert he was going to attend (in an attempt to get his mind off of the running clock) and occasionally revisited our discussion regarding the potential consequences of the test result.
Finally, the test was done. He had stopped shaking by this point; he was more eager than afraid to know his status. “Your results are neg…” Before I could finish, he exhaled a sigh of relief and leapt up from his chair. “Thank you so much! I just want you to know that I was really nervous for this, and you made it a great experience and kept me calm. I learned a lot. I’m not scared to get an HIV test anymore, and I’ll be more careful in my life,” he said as he shook my hand. Although we only spent 20 minutes together, we will remember each other for a long time. His test went well. And my test – to serve as his source of support and empathy no matter the result – did too.
Josh with his 2015-2016 Community HealthCorps teammates in NY.
Every year on June 27th, we honor National HIV Testing Day—an observance to promote HIV testing and the importance of knowing your status. An estimated 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, and 1 in 8 people who have HIV don’t know it. Find a testing site and take control today.