Today is World AIDS Day. In college, one of my internships was at the Valley AIDS Network [VAN] where I shadowed a case manager and got to work directly with clients, bringing them food and filling out papework with them or taking them to and from appointments. This is where I realized that in order to be happy in life, I need to be around people at all times. I had so much fun visiting their homes and talking with them about their families. I felt like I was actually helping, if only by being their friend.
The first thing that jumped out at me was realizing that people with HIV or AIDS don't look any different than anyone else. This seems like common knowledge, and of course I had been taught that they wouldn't, but I guess seeing is truly believing. I kept looking for skin discoloration or even dirty fingernails..... something that they all shared, but honestly they looked totally normal. They didn't even look or act sick.
The second thing I realized, is that the majority of our clients were having a really hard time economically. All of them lived in government housing. Some lived in these really creepy apartments that I only went into once because I was actually scared for my life -- this coming from a person who can go from project to project in an actual City and not feel afraid in the least bit. The lights were dim and I had to walk down this long hallway where people were laying up against the walls and talking to themselves. Honestly, it felt like a freakin crack house and I was waiting to get stabbed with a dirty needle. I couldn't imagine calling this place home.
I quickly realized that of course these people would end up living in government housing. It's a nasty little cycle. This disease eats away at your immune system which causes you to get sick all the time. It's really easy to lose your job when you're calling out every week. It's even easier to lose your job when you can no longer go to it, because the people and surroundings are exposing you to germs that are continuing to keep you sick. Then you come home to a nasty, dusty apartment, which I am positive is shared with roaches and other creatures, and you continue to get exposed to germs that your body cannot fight off.
There were some drug addicts that I worked with. You know who else was there? Several woman who had contracted the disease after their husbands had cheated on them. Children and babies. Older grandma's and grandpa's. Straight people. Gay people. And some people my age. It was really, really hard to leave work without feeling hopeless -- but I also left feeling like I was making a tiny difference in my community, because I was listening to these stories, connecting them to resources such as food banks and grants, and making so many friends along the way. This internship changed my life, and I'm not so sure most of my classmates could say the same.
The irony? I had been trying and trying to get this attorney to let me do my internship with him, because I was thinking that I may want to go to law school after I graduated. He led me on for a month and at that point I had to find something... anything. That's when I flipped through the yellow pages and found Valled AIDS. I didn't even know much about the disease, but they let me join them anyway. [things always happen for a reason!]
Here are some of the things that I learned during my internship:
[01.] You cannot get HIV/AIDS from kissing, drinking after someone, or even protected sex (using a condom). No!!!!! Your skin does a pretty good job of protecting your body, and the only way you can get it is if you have a cut on your hand and some one with HIV/AIDS bleeds into it. Or of course if you share a dirty needle or engage in unprotected sex. The disease does not travel through saliva.
*Condoms are the best protection against HIV and if worn with every act of sexual intercourse (including oral sex) you will not get HIV. If the condom breaks, there is medication available to stop the transmission of HIV. This is called PEPand is availalbe in most hospital emergency rooms. It is most effective if taken with 24 hours but can work up to 72 hours after exposure. source
[02.] Gay men and minorities are at a greater risk of contracting HIV/AIDS than the rest of the population. No!!!!! 50% of people living worldwide with HIV/AIDS are women. Anyone can contract the disease -- it does not discriminate between males or females, homosexuals, black or white, amongst religious or non-religious. Everyone is at risk, which is why it is so imortant to educate yourself on this issue.
[03.] HIV and AIDS are the same thing. No!!!!! HIV is the virus that eventually can lead to AIDS. AIDS is a syndrome, a group of illnesses, consisting of what are called opportunistic infections because a healthy person without HIV would never get these illnesses.
[04.] If you get HIV then you will definintly die from AIDS at a young age. No!!!!! HIV medication and testing has vastly improved since the early '80s. This means that people are diagnosed earlier which means that there is less permanent damage done to their immune system. This also means that medications are now effective at reducing the amount of virus (viral load) in a person's body to such low levels that they can carry on as normal and live normal lives.
[05.] If you touch blood, you will definintly get AIDS. No!!!!! Other than sharing injecting drug needles with an HIV-positive person, the only way for this to happen would be if you had an open, gaping wound and someone with HIV bled into it! Also, HIV is actually quite weak, so even if you had a wound and it touched blood, if that blood was outside someone's body the time, light, and temperature would likely have killed it so it would not likely be infectious.
The most important thing you can do today is educate yourself. This is the only way to break steriotypes and stop the spread of this terrible disease!