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Everyday, people walk into the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) Out of the Closet stores for free HIV testing and receive potentially life-changing news, delivered by AHF testing counselors, and it’s not an easy job.
In spite of this, the counselors are the first to advocate for HIV testing.
For Terri Kim, an HIV testing counselor for almost three years, this is her daily life, and 30 years after the discovery of the disease known as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), it’s still one of the most important places in the fight against the disease.
“You have to mentally prepare yourself to come in and change someone’s life,” Kim said. “In a situation like this, you are changing their life by giving them this information, and on the other hand, you may have four other people in the waiting room waiting for you. You have to give them that information, help them through the process and go right to the next person. You don’t necessarily get a chance to always collect yourself before you have to go to the next person.”
In an effort to encourage people to learn their HIV status, National HIV testing day will take place on June 27. Free tests will be provided the AHF testing locations at Out of the Closet stores as well as AHF mobile locations. There will also be free tests administered at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on June 26.
Kim said she became an HIV testing counselor after working at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center and witnessed one of her friends give a client a positive HIV test result.
“I saw the process of [the HIV positive client] breaking down and her having to be there for him,” she said. “And I saw her after the fact, when you don’t have to keep a strong face anymore.”
The OraQuick Rapid Advance test, used by AHF testing centers, provides results in less than 20 minutes. But nine years ago when HIV Testing Counselor Dennis Goldson began working for the AHF, the test they used took more than a week.
“That was the longest week,” Goldson said. “You are going crazy with all the ‘what ifs’, it was just an awful thing, and people wouldn’t test, because ‘I can’t wait a week’. People come in for 20 minutes and they are scared.”
If a test comes back positive, before the client is informed, the testers contact the AHF’s “Linkage Team” which comes out to the testing site to establish the client’s official viral load count, as required by law before declaring a person HIV positive.
Then, after the count is completed, the team works with the individual to determine their needs, and provides them with the help and support in accessing the medications and counseling.
“We got their back all the way,” Goldson said. “When they leave here they have referrals, everything they need including moral support.”
“The beauty of AHF is they have their own clinics, and have a process for that, regardless of whether people can afford it or not, they are taken care of,” Kim said. “Today, it’s not the end.”
At the Out of the Closet testing site at 8224 Santa Monica Blvd. where both Kim and Goldson work, they conduct an average of nine tests per day, but that number has increased over the years. The key to stopping the virus, they said, is getting an individual into treatment as soon as possible, because the longer an individual is infected and doesn’t know it, the higher the likelihood that they may infect someone they love.
“It has become quite clear that testing is important, and more folks are getting tested,” said Whitney Engeran-Cordova, AHF Senior Director of Public Health. “There are a couple things we know that if you have HIV and you are on treatment, it is very unlikely you are going to pass the virus to anyone else because the virus is suppressed by medication.”
Treatment is also much more manageable today than it was 15 years ago, Engeran-Cordova said.
“People have realized it should be part of a sexual health routine,” Engeran-Cordova said, “You should get an HIV test if you are sexually active.”
Goldson has seen numerous cases of individuals in monogamous relationships who come up positive. Despite their own personal actions, sometimes it is their partner who brings the infection into the relationship.
Goldson believes education is the key to preventing the disease.
“Young people now are the highest infected, and meth is a factor in that,” Goldson said. “Kids will only come in here to test because one of their friends just got positive.”
People who live high-risk lifestyles who do not practice safe sex are the most likely to become victims of the disease. Although treatments today can allow individuals to live longer lives, the only way to know is to get tested.
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