As many of you know, I work for Iris House, an organization that provides supportive and comprehensive services for people living with HIV, predominantly women in Harlem and the South Bronx. On my way out to lunch, I got an urgent text from a twenty one year-old friend who happens to live in the neighborhood where I work:
"I need to get tested right now. Where is your job? I have no clue right now, I'm literally don't know what to do. I'm shaking and just need a cigarette."
I was immediately thrust into a dual role of Mama Bear and AIDS Service Organization Professional. It was just about to be 1 PM, the height of Iris House's lunch hour, so I told him to meet me on the corner, we'd smoke a cigarette and see what he needed. I came back into the building, checked which of our staff members was on the testing schedule and went to see her. "I've got a friend coming in, he's very scared and will be here in fifteen minutes." Our staff member reassured me that she'd be gentle, and went downstairs to wait.
When he arrived, he was shaking. I gave him a hug and asked him if he wanted to share what happened, and he told me that the guy he was seeing had gone for a test last Thursday and that it had come back with a preliminary positive. Though they'd done nothing that we'd call 'high risk,' there was still a reason he needed to get tested. We came into the building, our receptionist joked with him and tried to put him at ease. Our tester came down to get him, and he asked if I could go with him. (I do admit to pulling out my cell phone and trying not to pay attention as she worked through the questionnaire with him.) He took the test, and we went back outside to wait the fifteen minutes that it would take to get a result.
He was still clearly shaken, but we talked about what either result would mean. We talked about the window period and how if the result was negative he'd still need to come back in two months; we talked about whether PEP was an option, putting him on a course of Truvada as a precaution. I told him that I wasn't sure about that, but thought that was an emergency course of action that needed to start within a couple days of exposure, but that his test counselor could answer that. In a few short minutes, our tester came outside looking for us. Just outside the front door, some clients were having a bake sale and had music playing. Our tester was dancing a little to the music. My friend turned and said, "She's dancing. I hope that's a good sign."
We went back into the testing room, and she gave him the results: Negative. She showed him the test and explained what it meant, and then asked him, unprompted, "You seem to have a reason why you came in today. Do you want to talk about it?" He explained the circumstances, and while she acknowledged that the activity was generally classified as low-risk, she also commended him for coming in for a test. She also told him he should come back in two more months just to be absolutely certain.
At this point, I was starving and so was he, so I took him with me to Subway. (Mmmm, 12 Weight Watchers points!) and on the way he told me how much the world had changed in his eyes. A regular test was no big deal, but one that came in a moment of crisis was petrifying. He'd stopped shaking, but was clearly still shaken by the experience. We talked about how he was going to address the conversation with his friend, but rather than coming from a place of anger, he agreed that what his newly diagnosed friend needed right now was not blame and accusations, but a shoulder. He's not sure how or if the month-old relationship was going to survive, but he felt sure that he could be the friend that was needed.
HIV is still very real. It's still a life-changing event. When I saw how scared this twenty-one year old was, despite how knowledgeable he was about HIV, means of transmission, etc., my own memories and fears came up again. "Back in the day" when I was his age, a test took three weeks to come back. Fortunately we have technology today that makes the period of anxiety-ridden uncertainty only as long as it takes to get to a test site and smoke a couple of cigarettes.
I've sat with friends before when they've gone through this process, but I've never been in the room when the actual test happened before. I've never had someone look me in the eyes and say, "I'm only 21...I'm just starting out..." I'm seeing and hearing about so many people I know, or at the very least friends of friends sero-converting these days at a far greater rate than I remember for years. I think scares like the one my friend had today are awful, but important, because in this day and age where HIV is being described intellectually as a 'chronic, treatable illness,' it certainly doesn't look or feel like that while you're watching the countdown clock on a test. To a twenty-one year old, fresh out of college and with no health insurance, even the possibility of a positive result for HIV is a life changing experience. I was glad to be there for him; I was glad that Iris House had such a warm and supportive team; and, I'm glad that he's revisiting what he does and does not do in the privacy of his own bedroom.