Stigma at times of COVID-19

Before we even heard of COVID-19, people living with HIV or AIDS were already facing stigma and discrimination as I experienced and shared with you regularly with healthcare providers throughout the years. Many more people started facing stigma when COVID-19 came along in many ways, and this made things for people living with HIV or AIDS even worse.

I would like to share my experience during this period and how I overcame the stigma and help the healthcare provider to open up her eyes and take into account what her actions can mean for others. In January I needed to do a CT scan and they happened to find a something on one of my lungs. For my entire life I never had to see a pulmonologist (lung doctor) before, so on 12 February I met one for the first time.

I was nervous and curious the same time. I am used to visit hospitals for many checks up and doctors always welcomed me through a hand shake. It was at a time when in the Netherlands there were no rules yet on how to behave in these different times. So we all still went about our business as usual and every doctor I met was still shaking hands. So I had quite a big expectation of warm greetings from this doctor since it was our first meeting.

When I gave my hand, she rejected me by saying “Oh no no, I don’t shake your hands, there are many viruses around. I don’t dare to be infected!“ I immediately felt confused and started thinking and asking myself what she meant by many viruses? I don’t have Corona, I don’t have flu, the only virus I have is my HIV. Since she read my medical file she knew what kind of virus I have. So this made me start doubting her words. Why would she talk to me as if I am very dangerous to her? Did she mean that my virus would jump to her by shaking hands? I really needed to find the reason behind her behaviour.

A week later some hospitals started introducing information on not shaking hands. But there was still not yet a strong medical protocol in place. So I went back to see my HIV Doctor, and this was also a new person as my previous doctor had left recently. So on 28 February I met her for the first time, and I was not expecting to shake hands. But, when she introduced herself, she said “Hello, I am not suppose to shake hands but since this is our first meeting I make an exception and I feel comfortable about it”. This is when I explained my experience with the lung doctor and how hurt I felt. So, she advised me to better talk to her again.

Afterwards, this whole episode with the lung doctor kept on playing in my mind; how she did not show empathy during our conversation, and how she also failed to really answer any questions on the diagnosis. I went completely crazy, and I decide to see my GP first to explain the results of the scan better to me. My GP explained very clearly and then I shared with her how I felt about the lung doctor, and she also advised me to go back and talk.

I waited until May, and I finally got an appointment this week. I was very calm, and not angry but curious. I told her that the main reason I came back was to talk to her how I felt last time we met. I asked her what she meant by saying “Many viruses”. I explained that by the time we met I did have only one virus, HIV. That sometimes I get discriminated in hospital because of that. She was completely in shock and said “I am sorry I meant to say flu, corona virus, not HIV”. then I said “Well, you should have been specific, because telling somebody with the HIV virus that you don’t shake hands because of many viruses, from experience I immediately understood that you meant HIV virus since I did not have corona, or flu”. She said 5 times sorry, “I am sorry I was not aware that people can get it wrong when I say virus. But you are right, I should have said flu or corona”.

I explained that we often face stigma as some people still believe they can get HIV virus by shaking hands, that what she said really bothered me. But that I did not want to accept this, and I needed to find out what she meant. She thanked me and said “You are a strong woman to come back and talk about this with me, you taught me a lot and I am going to use it with the next patients”. I told her that I did not do it for myself, I want to prevent this from happening to other patients like me. Not everyone will dare to challenge a doctor on this, especially my Africans migrants. And they will go home and feel bad, confused and get depressed by this. But I choose to clear my path before I move on. I need us to be clear and make sure we understand each other.

An important lesson learnt for her is that language matters. I am sure next time she will take into account which words to use when communicating with patients like me so then they don’t feel offended!

Peace, Eliane

HIV medication exchange

I would like to share an article (in Dutch) published on 9 Jaunary in the magazine Hello Gorgeous. It is about a topic that I am really passionate about: Ensuring that unused HIV medication, still in its original packaging and meant to be destroyed here in the Netherlands, reaches people with HIV in places where there is still no access to life-saving medication. In the text below you will find the translated text in English:

Ready to be sent to people without HIV medication in Romania

Hello Gorgeous: “How did you get this idea to collect HIV medication for Romania?” Eliane: “Last year I met a Romanian woman during a meeting of the European AIDS Treatment Group in Brussels. She was looking for people who wanted to donate their HIV medication to pregnant women with HIV. We became friends on Facebook and kept in touch. When she told me that these women are regularly without HIV medication, I was heart-broken. Without HIV medication they risk their children being born with HIV. I don’t understand this is still possible in Europe. “

Hello Gorgeous: “What are you doing to tackle this?” Eliane: “I am continuously asking people in my network, via messages and emails, if they have any medication left. Often, this happens when people switch medication, then they are left with unused medication. I collect this, compare it with a list I get from my contact in Romania, and then I send the required medication to Romania. It hurts me, to see we are so committed to climate action, for example by recycling, but that we are still throwing away perfect medication which can save lives elsewhere. This only happens because our rules are such that medication prescribed for one person cannot be transferred to someone else.”

Hello Gorgeous: “Have you also approached pharmacies to help you?”. Eliane: “Certainly, I talked to a number of pharmacists here in Amersfoort. They told me that they used to collect medication in the past but that this ended when health authorities required them to stop this. I always tell them to give it to me secretly. It is so difficult to accept that unused medication is destroyed while we can find a purpose for it. Meanwhile, we still worry about someone dying every 40 seconds of the effects of AIDS due to a lack of access to medication.”

Hello Gorgeous: “What can people do if they want to send you their unused HIV medication?” Eliane: “If people switch their HIV medication and still have unused supplies at home, they can contact me. Send me a message via hivstigmafighter@gmail.com and you will hear from me.”

This message gives me courage to continue HIV medication exchange

Hello Gorgeous, thank you so much for publishing this article. Already I have been approached by people, asking me how to send their left-over medication to me. Many people living with HIV in Romania will forever be grateful to you.

I really hope to expand this project in 2020, so more people with HIV in Romania or elsewhere in this world can continue using life-saving HIV medication even.

Peace, Eliane