Categorized | Sex & Health

Knowing is Beautiful

If Munn Ice Arena was filled to capacity with MSU students, at least 12 of them would be infected with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Would I be one of them?
“I can say that one in 500 students at MSU have HIV,” Megan Musica, HIV coordinator at Olin, said.
Olin has provided free HIV testing to MSU students for 17 years. I chose to get the test, partly because of this article and how I wanted others to know what the experience was like, and partly for my own reassurance. HIV testing at Olin is done on a completely anonymous basis, so as soon as I told the receptionist what I was calling to schedule, she quickly stopped me from giving my name, and instead, gave me a number. She spoke incredibly fast, giving the impression that she was either on a sugar-high, or reading from a script.
It is a two-part appointment. You come in first and take the test, served up with a side dish of educational counseling, and then a week later, you go back and receive the results, again with counseling.
[photo] The speed-talking receptionist then rattled off the list of available appointment times. After getting her to slow down, I picked dates and times for the two appointments. I hung up feeling a little unsure about what I had just gotten myself into. I felt ushered along, going with the rest of the crowd, again reduced to just a number and not a name. According to Musica, about 40 students a week come in for either the initial testing appointment or for the follow-up appointment. The fact they didn’t know my name left me wondering if they even cared if the test came out positive or negative. I was envisioning long, harsh needles and unsympathetic nurses in blinding white uniforms uninterested in answering my questions.
Several days later, I entered Olin’s front doors and went up to the third floor, room 357, where all I had to say was I had a 2:15 appointment. The receptionist knew who I was, or at least, what my number was. She gave me a form to fill out, sat me down in an open, comfortable and softly lit waiting room and went off to find the counselor that would administer the test.
I was still apprehensive I would soon be facing the sting of a needle in my arm as I sat rigidly in the waiting room, filling out a medical/sexual history and educational questionnaire. There was relaxing music and a comfortable chair – no harsh hospital overhead lighting, no crisp white uniform. I began to settle down, thinking this wouldn’t be so bad. It could have been the grandma-like receptionist, or maybe it was just the cups of condoms constantly within reach throughout the room. The room screamed protection.
The questionnaire was filled with questions like, How many partners had I had in the last year? Had I ever traveled outside the United States? How could I contact the HIV virus? Did I know how HIV was transmitted? How long could the HIV virus “hibernate” in my body?
I’m a generally open person about anything, so answering the questions, although they were very personal, didn’t make me feel uncomfortable. It did make me question my own knowledge of the HIV virus, however. For example, I never knew you could transmit the virus through breast milk.
[conx] A few minutes later, Musica, a small, dark-haired young woman, came in and invited me back to the counseling area. We didn’t exchange names, but she went over my questionnaire and explained everything to me in an even, comfortable tone. I imagined her saying, “What do you think of all this weather we’re having? And, by the way, when was the last time you had unprotected sex?” She immediately set my mind at ease about what kind of “educational counseling” I was getting into. She didn’t preach or judge but spoke openly and frankly about the subject.
Musica made it easy for me to talk to her about my sexual history, why I wanted to get the test done, what my knowledge of HIV/AIDS was and what the possibility was of my actually having HIV. She will be attending medical school next year to study to be a physician. She has also been an HIV counselor at Olin for two years, and enjoys her job immensely.
“It has been the most significant experience I had over the past four years,” Musica said. “I love the one-on-one contact. Although many students understand their potential risks, my greatest challenge is helping students to implement positive behavioral changes in their personal lives. I realize that every student will not make these changes, but I have given them the knowledge and the tools to do so.”
After reviewing my questionnaire, Musica asked a very important question and just about the only one that I remember clearly.
If the test was to come out positive, for any reason, what would happen? Who would I tell? How would I react?
I sat back for a moment. I had never thought of it that way. Who would I tell? What would happen? “Hey, Mom, by the way, along with acing my geography exam, I also have HIV…”
I had a moment of panic before realizing the truth. It wouldn’t matter who I told because I would be taken care of. I come from a large, close-knit family that would be completely supportive. There are times when I loathe them, probably like anyone might feel about their family at some point, but I know if worse comes to worse, they would be there for me. I also know most students who take this test don’t have that kind of support system already in place. I explained this to Musica and she agreed.
She then surprised me again by giving me the option to take either an oral test or a blood test. I hate needles with a passion, but for the sake of this article, I gritted my teeth and said I would take whichever test most students use (see what I do for you readers?) Much to my relief, Musica suggested the oral test. I felt like I had just dodged a bullet.
The HIV antibodies can be detected through both saliva and blood. Since I was a low-risk patient, Musica explained the oral test is the one they usually administer. Only very high-risk and foreign students are usually given the blood test, since that can detect different strains of HIV (such as those prominent in Africa).
Musica pulled out a metal tube from the cupboard and started filling out the paperwork. Along with an anonymous number, I also had to give an anonymous name, to keep the test completely confidential. Musica then pulled something that looked like a flat toothbrush out of the tube and explained I was to put this in my mouth, in between my lips and gums, for three minutes. Anything was better than getting stuck with a needle at that point, so I happily complied. As soon as I put the swab in my mouth, I wanted to spit it back out. It tasted like an over-salted cracker.
Once the salty swab was ready, I stuck it back in the plastic cylinder. Musica sealed it and reinserted it in the metal tube, saying it would be sent out to the lab that afternoon. She also explained if I felt uncomfortable with the test at anytime, I could call and have it canceled, and they would destroy the sample.
Test completed, Tootsie Pop sucker in hand, I was given yet another number to match my anonymous one with my test results, and was sent on my way thinking that was the easiest thing ever. Musica said if I had been a high-risk patient, there would have been more talk about changing my sexual behavior, how I could do it, why I took the risks, preventing them in the future, etc.
A week later I was back in Musica’s office, test number in hand, awaiting my results.
Without fanfare, she laid the piece of paper in front of me.
Negative.
She explained this meant there were no HIV antibodies in my system. Not that it was a big surprise, but face it, hearing you don’t have a deadly virus in your system can bring about some happiness.
If a student does test positive for HIV, Olin brings in the reinforcements. Musica said they always do another test to confirm the results if the first test comes back positive, but when it’s time to reveal the results to the student, they bring in professionals from the Lansing Area Aids Network (LAAN) to give the student the best support available.
“We have a protocol that we follow, and usually the positives are only given by full-time staff and not the student counselors, although everyone is trained to give them,” Dr. Denis Martell, health education services coordinator at Olin, said. “There are certain CDC MDCH guidelines we follow, but we usually get LAAN involved in every client that tests positive. LAAN is a great service to those who test positive and are living with HIV and/or AIDS.”
HIV testing is not the only thing the program at Olin offers to students.
“We offer them a safe, anonymous counseling environment to talk about anything, and I mean anything,” Martell said. “And then we can offer help or refer help. World AIDS Day and National Testing Day, as well as special programs, are always part of the program. We are beginning to look at outreach groups for those who do not want to come in. I think the best thing the program does for students is that it gives them an opportunity to test and be educated.”
Martell also said most MSU students are generally well educated about HIV and/or AIDS.
“Some aren’t, but I would put that percent at less than 25,” Martell said. “I think most have also become complacent with the epidemic and that we always need to keep them educated. Twenty-eight percent of the students report that they received info on HIV/AIDS from the university in the latest NCHA 2004 survey.”
I walked out feeling relieved. Although the knowledge I was not HIV-positive was a relief, I just felt better knowing.

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