July 18, 2009

Testing Times

I’ve written before about how many people in Itipini are afraid to be tested for HIV because they are afraid what the result might be and afraid a positive test is a death sentence. This is one of the defining features of the HIV epidemic, I believe. I would always tell people how it is better to know than to not know and that there is help available for people that will prolong their life. But I recently got a little taste of that fear myself.

About a year ago in South Africa I thought about getting an HIV test. It would have just been a precautionary step. But it seemed that after a year in the clinic, it might be a wise idea. I never did get tested. Maybe I had heard from too many people at that time that they were too scared to be tested and I let that affect me, even though I had no reason to be scared. Some irrational part of my mind guided my decision-making and the idea of being tested just slipped away, even though it might have been a good example for others in Itipini.

Now that I’m back in North America, it made sense to get a pretty thorough check-up to make sure that everything I’ve been exposed to in the past two years hasn’t left any permanent marks. Naturally, when I went to see the doctor he suggested I have an HIV test. I readily agreed. I was over that irrational thought process.

The lab in Nome has to send the blood out for the HIV test so I had to wait a few days. The doctor had said that if it was negative, he would probably just leave a message on the answering machine telling me that. If it was positive, “we would have to sit down and have a talk.” But, he added, I shouldn’t be worried if I got a message telling me to call him.

A few days after the blood was drawn, I got back late on a Friday night and there was a message on the machine. “Jesse, this is Doctor So and So. Could you give me a call?” The HIV test was the only outstanding item remaining from the visit so I knew it was about that. It had been a good night and the call brought me right back down to earth. Why didn’t he just tell me on the phone? I lay awake in bed that night thinking about what it might mean.

The doctor, unfortunately, was out of town for a few days so I got to stew in my own thoughts. It’s easy to say in retrospect that I was never really scared about what the results might be but I definitely thought about it a lot. The only thing I did that put me at the slightest risk for contracting HIV was handle needles and I never poked myself with them. I covered up even the slightest abrasions when I noticed them. Objectively, I also knew that HIV is actually a difficult virus to transmit. I knew I didn’t have any symptoms of HIV (though given its long incubation that shows nothing). And I knew I shouldn’t be afraid of HIV. I personally know scores of people living successful and healthy lives with the virus.

But there was that tiny sliver of unknowing, the thought that “well… maybe… you can never be too careful… there was that one time I didn’t wear gloves…”

The doctor and I next spoke when I was at work. I don’t want to sound too melodramatic but I closed the door to the newsroom before I picked up his call and tried to get my head from a point where I was writing a story about fish to a point where I was ready to hear about my health.

“Well, Jesse,” he said. “I’ve got your HIV results here.” He seemed to take a torturous path to get to the point. “They did a really thorough work-up on them.” He explained all the ways my blood had been tested. “And, of course,” he added, almost as an after-thought, “you’re negative.”


We chatted a bit about when or if I should be re-tested and he apologized for leaving an unclear message. And that was that. (I also don’t have TB, despite daily exposure to it.)

It’s a reminder, I guess, of how we are all the same. Despite my preaching about the importance of testing these last two years, when it is my blood on the line, I get scared and nervous and uncertain just like everyone in Itipini.


Judi said...

Thanks for sharing this story with us, Jesse. Yes, we're all the same when it comes down being scared and nervous when it comes down to our blood, our health.


Monk-in-Training said...

wow, that definitely would focus one's attention.

May God protect you as you serve His children.