By Nicole Hanlon, 2013-2014 Community HealthCorps® Member, Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers
In honor of this Saturday’s National HIV Testing Day, Community HealthCorps® would like to shine a light on the great work our AmeriCorps members do to promote HIV/AIDS awareness & testing and provide overall support to individuals affected by or living with HIV/AIDS. The story featured below, written by Community HealthCorps® alum Nicole Hanlon, demonstrates one of many scenarios in which our AmeriCorps members provide crucial support and guidance to an individual facing a potentially life-changing moment tied to getting tested for HIV.
Over the course of the past five months of service with the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, I have educated, tested, and counseled a number of individuals on HIV in a variety of settings. This is nothing that I ever would have imagined I would have been a part of, but am lucky that I have the opportunity to do so. Coming into this experience, I knew very little about HIV, but through reading, teaching, and talking to individuals living with the virus, I have learned a lot. I am able to see firsthand the stigma and fear that is associated with HIV/AIDS, much of which, to me, seems to be present because of the lack of education around the topic. Being able to make a dent in potentially eliminating this stigma, even on the smallest scale, is something I have been passionate about in the past with other topics and am happy I have been given the opportunity to do with HIV.
Recently, I encountered a woman who further reinforced that the service I am doing is worthwhile. She walked into the testing room, and I could see that she was hesitant about getting tested. Her movement was slow, her posture tense, and her face said it all. The amount of fear in this woman’s eyes was not something you see too often. Upon inviting her to sit down, and before doing the test, we talked about her reasons for getting tested and addressed her evident, overwhelming trepidation. She broke down. I was informed of her previous behaviors and learned of an incident that occurred last summer: the main source of her fear. Last June she found herself in a situation that led to her being raped by two men that she did not know. After a trip to the hospital, it was brought to her attention that the possibility is there that she could have been exposed to a number of different things, one of which being HIV. But she did not want to know. What if she was exposed? What does that mean for her future? Her family? Her children? She didn’t want her life to be cut short.
It took over 6 months to build up the courage to face what had been haunting her every day and finally get tested. Once the test was given, we waited. This must have been the longest 15 minutes of this woman’s life. She kept repeating, “I did it. I cannot believe I did it,” along with “I just don’t want it to come back positive.” After a couple of minutes, she decided she wanted to wait somewhere away from the test and asked if I could call her back in when the results were ready.
At the end of the 15 minutes, I was happy to tell her results: non-reactive. She broke down crying once again as I joked, “I’m guessing those are tears of joy.” She smiled and laughed for the first time in the 20 minutes I was with her. A weight was lifted off her shoulder that day, a weight that had been crushing her for half a year previously. She thanked me for making her feel comfortable, gave me a hug, and left the room—not with fear as was the case upon entering, but with relief and joy. Seeing and experiencing this has reinforced that I am doing something rewarding, worthwhile, and am making a difference, even if it is in just a small population. You never know what may start a chain reaction.