This post was originally written on 12 October 2013.

 

One word. One small, seemingly bad word. This one word felt life saving today.

I spent my day at a local high school carnival with some teenagers I know in my community. So much of my day was familiar- adolescents navigating their tenuous relationships and identities, Robin Thicke blasting on the speakers, the smell of chicken on the braai. But, there were parts of my day that felt wholly unfamiliar. One of these unfamiliar parts was the fact that the Western Cape Government had a booth where they were doing education and prevention for HIV/AIDS and other STIs.

I am fiercely passionate about issues of public health, especially those that affect marginalized communities. I also desperately want to advocate and change the way we educate youth about their sexual and reproductive health. Immediately, I was intrigued and saw an opportunity to learn something.

I wandered over to see what they were doing, and they informed us that the tents next to their booth were for free HIV testing for anyone and everyone. The young female government employee I was speaking to said, “Are you going to test? You know, you can never be too sure of your status. And it’s free.” One of the teenagers I was with casually mentioned that she might want to test, but that she didn’t want to do it alone. I asked if she wanted me to go first so she would feel more comfortable. She agreed, so I walked into the tent.

“Hi. Can I get a test?”

“You mean an HIV test?”

“Yes, can I get an HIV test? Does it matter that I’m from America and not a citizen here?”

“No, testing is free for everyone. Please take a seat.”

I sat down, she had me fill out a consent form, and asked me a few questions. The test reminds me of what I know of testing your blood sugar.  She pricked my finger, took some blood, and put it on a testing strip. The strip takes very little blood and only needs a few minutes. In a country fighting this epidemic so fiercely, this little testing strip is nothing short of a miracle. It allows for the testing of many people with little equipment and on-site counseling if a test is positive.

During those unimaginably long moments of waiting, I told my nurse about my passion for public health, she told me about working as a community health nurse. She spends her days testing people for HIV and counseling them on next steps. I told her I want to get more involved in healthcare work during my time here, and she told me I would be welcomed at her clinic anytime.

 

Then, the wait time was over.

 

She looked down at the strip.

 

“Your HIV test is negative.”

 

A palpable release of tension in the little tent.

 “But remember- always use protection and test every 3-6 months. Would you like me to test your blood pressure while you’re here?”

I felt my chest loosen, my body settle, and my pulse slow. I felt, more intimately than usual, the tide of my blood flowing through my body. My blood, which is healthy and contains plenty of cells to fight infection instead of fighting each other.

I thanked her, smiled, and walked out of the tent. My teenage companions were waiting outside- my friend also tested negative. We high-fived and continued to enjoy the carnival.

Granted, there was never any doubt for my status. I knew what the test would say. And yet, somehow, hearing that one word gave me such relief. Negative. My test was negative.

 

Unfortunately, that is not the case for many South Africans. South Africa is one of the countries worst hit by the HIV epidemic, which was not helped by former President Thabo Mbeki’s prejudices against life-saving medicines. Current statistics suggest that 18% of the adults in South Africa are HIV-positive.  I have been here for such a small amount of time, but even I can see the affect that HIV/AIDS has on communities in the Western Cape. The fact that the Government is out on a Saturday at a high school carnival, offering free testing to anyone and everyone, and educating the public about how to have safe sex? Well, that gives me hope. It gives me hope for the Western Cape, but it also gives me hope for the world. 

I hope and pray that I get to learn more about public health here, specifically around HIV/AIDS. But today, I took the first step. I got tested. I learned, even in my own small way, the power of the word “negative.”

 

Lord, thank you for this beautiful and complex world, even with its diseases and injustices. Help us remember those who suffer from poor health, poor healthcare, and poverty. Help me remember the feeling of my healthy blood flowing in my veins, and allow that feeling to energize me in service of my community. Be with us, as a global community, as we embrace the power of the word “negative,” and help us spread that word throughout the world.

 

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