Column: After the needle stick: The real trial behind HIV testing

By Brian Pierce

When I went into McKinley to schedule an anonymous HIV testing last week, I was asked to provide an anonymous name. I got flustered and couldn’t think of anything but “Brian,” which possibly defeated the purpose, but then, so does writing about it for public consumption.

The actual blood testing is a quick and easy procedure. The struggle is what comes before. I sat on a blue bench for about ten minutes, grad student assistants milling about in the offices along the hallway. They knew what I was doing there; they must have. It was on my face.

Then a woman came and took me back to a room and sat me down next to her desk. She asked me several questions like “What would a positive result mean to you?” and “How do you think you can prevent exposure to HIV in the future?”

It all seemed a little silly to me. The only reason I was there was because my new boyfriend wanted me to go just to make sure; there was little reason to think I might actually have contracted HIV. I told the woman as much, and yet the questions kept coming. “When’s the last time you had anal sex?” (Answer: three and a half months ago-happy birthday to me!) “When’s the last time you had vaginal sex?” (Answer: ew, never.) “When’s the last time you had oral sex?” (Answer: that morning, which was more than a little embarrassing to be telling this woman.)

After the questions were all asked and answered, she sent me with a smile to the basement to get my blood drawn like the AIDS-ridden sodomite I potentially could have been. Because it was all anonymous and they didn’t know my name, they gave me a number.

A short while later, they called number 26, and in a matter of seconds my blood was slurped from my body into a syringe that would be handled with plastic gloves and extreme caution. It would be held at McKinley for a preliminary test, for which a negative result would mean I was fine. If it came back positive, it would be taken off to a more advanced facility for more advanced testing – and if that came back negative, I would still be in the clear. If it was positive, I’d be brought in and tested all over again.

All in all, the whole thing was an unpleasant ordeal. I felt terrified and awkward and isolated and dirty throughout, despite the best efforts of all the McKinley employees involved who did everything they could to smile and make me feel comfortable and like I was doing the right, responsible thing.

I won’t find out the results for another couple of days. As I say, I’m not worried, and yet the fact that it’s out there – my blood, floating out there, being put under a microscope and scrutinized for antibodies – makes me wonder just what would happen on the off chance that I do have the disease that has taken more than 25 million lives around the world since it was discovered in 1981, and about 3 million lives in the past year alone.

Soon enough I’ll have peace of mind. And in spite of the dread I felt walking up the stairs in McKinley and turning right at the sign that reads “Anonymous HIV Testing,” in spite of the awkwardness I felt sitting in the hallway waiting to be called inside, in spite of the embarrassment I felt answering the intensely private questions they asked, in spite of the shame I felt handing the woman in the basement the papers I had indicating I needed HIV testing – in spite of the entire awful mess, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second doing it all over again. Some might think it is too heavy a price to pay, but in exchange for the ability to look a loved one in the eyes, it is a steal, I assure you.