BY THOMAS E. BERTRAND
It was September 1994, and I had never imagined myself sitting alone in the crowded and chaotic basement of Traveler’s Aid Society, now known as Crossroads, in downtown Providence, waiting to get my first HIV test results.
The news was good: the test result was negative. While feeling relief at that moment, the entire process was emotionally exhausting. Back in the 1990s, it took a full two weeks to get test results for the vial of blood that was drawn. I knew one thing: I never wanted to go through that process again.
Fortunately, Rhode Islanders today have access to many HIV testing services through their doctors and in community locations, with welcoming and safe environments. “Rapid” HIV tests are widely available that provide results in 20 minutes. Clients now often have a choice: a simple and painless mouth swab or finger-prick. There are many community-based organizations that offer anonymous testing at no cost. At AIDS Project Rhode Island (APRI), both individual and couples HIV testing is offered.
Today I am a licensed Rhode Island HIV test counselor and have provided HIV tests to more than 250 people. Most people who come in for testing are seeking the peace of mind that a negative test result provides. I have witnessed mixed reactions to receiving a negative HIV test result — huge sighs of relief, silent reflection, and tears of joy.
For those who receive a positive HIV test result, I provide counseling, assurance and support as they proceed to confirmatory testing and medical care. A positive test result often includes managing many difficult personal issues.
However, there are strong systems in place in Rhode Island to help the people living with HIV gain access to medical care, medications, and other social services, regardless of income and health insurance status.
It takes courage to get an HIV test. However, on this National HIV Testing Day today, I’m hopeful that Rhode Islanders will take advantage of the free, friendly and rapid testing services in Rhode Island. The peace of mind, regardless of the test result, is well worth it.
APRI is offering HIV testing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at its location at 9 Pleasant St., Providence. All testing is free and anonymous. No appointment is necessary; just walk in. More information is available at (401) 831-5522 or www.AIDSProjectRI.org.
Thomas E. Bertrand is executive director of AIDS Project Rhode Island, a division of Family Service of Rhode Island.