Column: The Importance of Getting Tested for HIV

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Bruce Steinberg

This year, and every year, we conduct our largest outreach and testing event at PrideFest of the Palm Beaches.  It’s an incredible opportunity for us to reach out to the community and make HIV testing available fast, free and super convenient to a large numbers of gays and lesbians.

This was perhaps our largest testing year with more than 200 HIV tests conducted during the two-day event. But there was one test that I would never forget.

When was the last time you were tested for HIV?  The question alone can be anxiety provoking.  No matter how safe you are, or how often you get tested, the universal reaction to getting an HIV test is fear.  This past June 27 was National HIV Testing Day. It served as an important reminder for why its so crucial to get tested and be involved in HIV prevention every single day. It’s about more than simply protecting yourself.

I moved to Palm Beach County from New York City last year and wanted to get involved in the community.  I discovered Compass and quickly fell in love with the organization, its environment, people and the dedication of the volunteers and staff.  So I started as a volunteer answering phones and helping the public navigate the many offerings and groups at the community center.  Soon I trained to become an HIV Testing Counselor and by the fall of 2011 I was conducting HIV tests as well as pre- and post-test counseling.  There was a lot of meaning in my life as I really felt that I was truly helping other people in a way that was vital and immediate.  I was hired by the HIV Prevention Department in October, 2011 and was now doing HIV testing and prevention for a living.

A friend of mine (I’ll call him Joe) came into our tent to get tested at the height of the rush on Saturday.  Whenever my friends get tested it makes me happy because it means that we are caring for and about each other. Joe and I had become friends a few months earlier.  We had a lot in common and hung out regularly.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw his test result.  Joe’s test was “reactive” meaning that he was probably infected with HIV.   We would have to collect another sample and wait for a confirmatory result in 2 weeks.  But for now, I had to tell him.  I now had my first “reactive” result and it was a friend.  No amount of training could prepare me for this.

Initially he didn’t react.  Looking at me wide eyed, he listened to me speak awkwardly about what the next steps were and how the confirmatory test worked.  We then had a quiet moment, looked into each other’s eyes, and I saw his tears begin to roll down his cheeks.  Somehow in that moment we both experienced a new understanding of our lives.  For Joe, he knew his life had changed forever and would require a new focus on his health and wellbeing.  For me, I had found a new calling, one that gave my life real purpose… saving lives.

Joe was confirmed positive and subsequently had his blood tests.  The news was shocking, his immune system was in fairly bad shape.  Thank God Joe had not waited any longer to test than he did. Thankfully Compass was at PrideFest to make testing widely available and extremely convenient.  On that day, we may have saved Joe’s life, and perhaps others as well.  Why do we get tested?  We care about each other.