Monday, September 05, 2011

What to expect when you go for HIV testing

Since we're having a free HIV confidential counseling and testing event on my birthday, September 11, I'd like to give you a primer on what to expect when you go for a proper HIV testing process.

Step One: The Form. When you arrive at the testing venue, you will be asked to fill out a form. The form is shown below.

Most people's first question is -- should I reveal my real identity? The official answer is YES, because all information written in this form will be handled in strict confidence. My personal, non-official answer is this: it is up to you. When you fill out this form, the name you write will not be cross-checked with any other identification documents (passport, IDs, etc.) This means, whatever name you write in this form is taken as is. If you so decide to put an alias or fake name, just be sure you remember it so there is no confusion during the time you are given your results later on.

Regarding other demographic-related questions in the form -- here are some of my personal thoughts:

Permanent Address/mailing address: not important, you may specify only your area and city, e.g. Sampaloc, Manila; or South Triangle, Quezon City.
Contact Number: VERY IMPORTANT, please specify here your personal mobile number that you use most often. This is critical because it will be used in case there is an urgent need to give you important information regarding the results of your test.
Other demographic information (birthday, sex, age, etc.): fairly important, used for statistics keeping of the DOH -- I suggest you put your real information here just to help the DOH-NEC to capture accurate statistics. These information will not be used to identify you.

For the rest of the form (employment history, travel history, history of HIV test, etc.), you may or may not be asked to fill these all out. A counselor may help fill this out with you during the next step of the process. The information you give here will be used to assess your risk, which will help your counselor in providing life-saving information and recommendations appropriate and customized to you and your situation. I recommend that you be "honest-to-the-bone" when you answer these questions, as this will directly impact the recommendations that will be given you for your own well-being.

Step Two: The Pre-Test Counseling. After filling out the form, you may be asked to wait for a little bit, depending on the number of people who have come to the testing venue ahead of you. When it is your turn, a friendly HIV counselor will approach you and lead you to a private area for a one-on-one counseling session. The counselor will look at the form you have filled out and will help you complete it. He or she will also, in the most sensitive, friendly but honest and direct way, ask you questions that will help him or her assess your risks in contracting sexually transmitted infections and most specifically HIV. My recommendation: be totally honest. You may share with your counselor how you feel about the situation, perhaps your fears and inhibitions, and he or she will help you to the most of his ability. An HIV counselor is trained to listen and handle such conversations with complete confidentiality and sensitivity. S/he is there to help you.

In some cases, the Pre-Test Counseling is preceded by a short HIV/STI class (10-15 minutes long) wherein a Peer Educator will provide a small group of people some important information about HIV and STI in an interactive lecture format. This is done mostly to help the individuals get critical information even prior to the one-on-one counseling. When this HIV/STI class is not given, the counselor will provide the same set of critical information to the individual embedded in their one-on-one pre-test counseling session.

Towards the end of the pre-test counseling session, the counselor is required to verify that you are willingly and in your own volition, submitting yourself to go through the HIV test. To ensure that you are indeed voluntarily going for HIV testing, he will ask you to sign the following Informed Consent form:

If you have even an iota of doubt about having the test, it is alright to say no, and say you're not ready yet. The counselor will understand and respect your decision. It is important to understand that no one is forcing you, and that the process will proceed only if you want it to. If you decide to proceed with the test, you will be asked to use an alis, a code, for further confidentiality and privacy. This alias will be used in the official records of the process (labeling your papers, results, etc.), to further protect your identity. Again, each step of the way, the process ensures the confidentiality of all information given.

Upon verification of the counselor that you are indeed voluntarily submitting yourself for an HIV test, he will lead you to the medical technologist.

Step Three: The Actual Test. The medtech will draw blood from a vein in one of your arms. About 5 ml of blood will be drawn. After the blood is drawn, you will be asked to stay in a waiting area.

Step Four: The Waiting. It is important to note that while you are just waiting, this is a very critical step in the process. This is the most excruciating and stressful period in the whole process. Even if the wait is only 15, 20, or 30 minutes -- it may feel like the longest period in your whole life. When I went for my very first test, I thought I was going to faint! So, my recommendation is this: while waiting, don't forget to breathe. If you're alone, go to a quiet corner and practice deep breathing. If you are with a companion, you may want to converse about something totally different, or whatever topic you feel will help you relax. Whatever you do, try to relax. Easier said than done, but I insist, try to relax. Stressing about the upcoming results will not change anything, and will just further your emotional distress. So, do what you need to do to relax.

Step Five: The Post-Test Counseling. When your results are ready, your alias or codename will be called. This, or that your counselor will approach you and again bring you to a private area for one-on-one counseling. He will deliver the result of your HIV test and engage you in a conversational counseling session to help you map out next steps based on the results of your test. Whatever the result may be, remember that at this point, your counselor is your best ally. Ask him any question you may have. He is there to help you the best he can. After your counseling session, you may leave the premises.

Whatever the result of your HIV test, congratulate yourself for having the courage to go through the process. As you will discover, it is not easy, and it can be such a harrowing experience -- especially if you let fear get the better of you. But as you step out of the testing venue, give yourself a pat on the back. You went through your test because you love yourself. You went through it because you care for your loved ones. Regardless of the result, for most of us, it will be like a thorn is plucked from your aching heart, or a huge baggage is lifted from your heavy chest. Now you know your status, you are in the best position to take care of yourself. Because you have dared to know, you can take care of yourself better, and share more the love you have for yourself and for others. Congrats!

If you have any questions regarding this process, there is always someone willing to help. Email -- and expect a response within 24 hours.

- Migs