Wednesday, December 3, 2008

world AIDS week: what it's like for an HIV counselor

She was sitting in the waiting room like all the others. She and her daughter were the only females in the room. She looked young, but her eyes revealed that she felt much older. Her daughter couldn't have been more than 3 years old. Her black, wavy hair was pulled into two haphazard pig tails and she carried a tattered teddy bear that was obviously her best friend. The bear was quite worn and it was obvious that he had experienced many hugs in its lifetime. In contrast, the woman looked like she needed one.

A hug that is.

Her hair was pulled back in a large, slick bun. Her clothing was modest. Her shoes were very worn. When she crossed her legs, the soles revealed holes due to overuse. She was fidgety. But everyone in that room was anxious about something, except the little girl who was preoccupied with smoothing her teddy bear's fur.

As Maria sat in the counseling room, watching the reactive HIV test take its time, she reviewed her notes. The woman in the waiting room had just taken an HIV test. Maria had been her counselor. Maria had been doing this for quite some time, this HIV testing and counseling gig. It certainly wasn't enough to pay the bills. These non profits never pay much. That's why she had to take a second job as a support group leader. But Maria wasn't doing this for the money. She was a counselor because she wanted to help people. I suppose that's why she was a support group leader too.

Maria reviewed her notes from the counseling session. She asked the woman the normal assessment questions. Have you ever been tested? Do you use drugs? Do you have sex? How many times? Oral? Vaginal? Anal? With how many people? The woman was married and faithful to her husband. But she suspected him of cheating on her. He was coming home later, saying he had picked up some odd jobs here and there to make some extra cash. But she never saw that extra cash, which they desperately needed. He came home too tired to be with her. Besides that, the woman just had a feeling about it all. Intuition.

Maria asked if the woman used condoms. She had gasped, NO! She couldn't do that. Her husband didn't like the way the condoms feel when they have sex. And he's the one who calls the shots. Always. They had been married for a short while before she conceived her daughter. The woman tries not to have sex on the dangerous days, the fertile days of her cycle. They can't afford another baby right now. But if her husband wants to have sex on a dangerous day all she can do is pray she doesn't get pregnant. And she really doesn't want to get pregnant now if he's cheating on her.

RIIIIIING! The sound of the timer signaled the test was ready. Maria went over to the tray and checked out the woman's test. Giving the results of a test is always the hardest part. You never know how someone is going to react. Maria walked into the waiting room and the woman looked up. "Ready?" she asked. Maria nodded her head and signaled the woman to follow her back to the counseling room. Maria asked herself, Are they ever really ready?

Maria sat the woman down and the woman instructed her daughter to sit in the chair next to her. Her daughter obliged and hugged her teddy tightly while looking at Maria. Her mother looked down at her shaking hands never making eye contact with Maria. Maria said, "Well, the results of your test are ready. And you tested negative. You don't have HIV." Before Maria went on to tell her about how this test was preliminary and how she would have to get tested again in 3 months to be sure she was HIV free, the woman broke down, sobbing. Her daughter went over to her and hugged her mother's leg.

Maria couldn't tell if the woman was crying because she was relieved or because she was upset about something else. She couldn't see the woman's face. She approached the woman and rubbed her heaving back. Maria asked a loaded question, "What are you thinking right now?" The woman looked up and revealed a tear streaked face. She softly said, "I wanted to have HIV." Feeling unprepared for that answer, Maria treaded lightly and asked, "Why?" The woman looked down again and said, "I have nothing. My husband doesn't love me and I want to leave him. I know he's cheating on me! I've smelled her on him. I have nothing but my baby. And my friend told me that they help people with HIV. They help them get a place to live and food to eat and medical care if they need it. I need help too, but now I'm not going to get it because I don't have HIV."

Calmly, Maria replied, "If you need help, all you have to do is ask." Maria made a list of things the woman asked for. Next to those items she wrote down the agency or person that could help her. Maria didn't make any promises, but she assured the woman that these people would do their best to help her. She also referred her to the staff psychologist in case the woman needed someone to talk to. Eventually, the woman calmed down and she and her daughter left the counseling room with a little more hope.

Meanwhile, Maria took a few seconds to pull herself together. All she had was a few seconds. The waiting room was full and busy. She straightened up, walked over to the waiting room and called, "Next!"

The next person. The next story. The next worry. The next heartache to soothe.

After all, this is what Maria signed up for.


Generation Next said...

This pains me because I see similar women every week too, though in slightly different circumstances. I HATEHATEHATE that women let their partners dictate when/how/howsafe their sex is. Sigh. Thanks for sharing.

instatick said...

This was beautiful - thank you so much for sharing it!

anOCgirl said...

GEN NEXT: i don't know if you read the washington post regularly, but courtland milloy had a great opinion piece the other day about women and HIV. and he said something like, women need to stop giving the man control when it comes to safe sex. there were some other good points too. it was a great piece.

instatick: thank you. it was pretty difficult to write, but i'm glad you liked it.