Working in healthcare is considered a vocation. It takes a particular kind of person to help others in crisis, however big or small. The job comes with an incomparable sense of reward and can sometimes feel like you are superhuman. Putting on your uniform can feel like putting on amour. With this in mind, you can see how clinicians seldom picture themselves being the patient. This made the shock of my HIV diagnoses particularly overwhelming.
I began my paramedic studies in 2017. It is a course that throws you in the deep end and requires you to pick up skills quickly. In my final year of study my main concern was fine tuning my skills and preparing for finals. At no point did I worry about my life being turned upside down. However, in December 2019 I attended A&E due to a rash that I knew wasn’t normal. The next day, after being admitted to the ward, I was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 21. Coming from a medical background I think I initially took the news better than most would. I was unaware of the rollercoaster of emotions I would go through over the following months.
There was the usual difficult conversations one would expect; telling parents, friends etc. Most people my age’s parents grew up watching the government adverts warning the public that AIDS was going to kill us all and that gay people are to blame. Understandably there was some lack of education and understanding which meant a lot of educating loved ones on the truth of living with HIV today.
The next hurdle was informing my university and wondering how this would affect my final few months of study. Being honest I wasn’t sure on any of the policies or regulations with regards to healthcare workers being HIV positive. One of the first friends that I had told about my diagnosis was worried that I couldn’t continue with my career due the virus. In actual fact, there are very little limitations to adhere to. Successful HIV treatment means that an individual becomes undetectable. This means that the viral load of HIV in the blood is so low that the virus cannot be passed on to another person. Knowing this, it should be easy to understand how any career, including the medical profession, shouldn’t be affected by a diagnosis such as this. The main adjustment is only blood tests more frequently to ensure that ones levels are staying at an undetectable measure.
However, a lack of understanding around HIV today meant that I was faced with a huge amount of criticism, homophobia and discrimination. This included getting ‘let go’ from the part-time job I had to get me through university, rumours being spread about me and assumptions being made due to my sexuality, hateful comments being made about me, and concerns being raised about me working as a paramedic. The end result was a subsequent diagnosis of depression. Nevertheless, I did obtain an overwhelming desire to speak out about HIV and the treatment and show that there is no shame living with the virus.
The healthcare world has no place for discrimination, judgement, hate, and so on. As a result of this journey I feel like an even more qualified and resilient clinician than I ever was. My ability to empathise with patients has considerably increased. My career is one with an insane amount of variety. We see patients of all ages and backgrounds and furthering my empathy for patients is something I am very thankful for.
I am almost approaching a year since being diagnosed. Looking back I am in a much better position that I was a year ago. I have since qualified as a paramedic and received my BSc. I currently hold three jobs having only graduated this year (university, ambulance service and prison service). I am not only improving my own life but I am lucky enough to be in a position that I can directly help others, often in their greatest time of need. Even with all the intolerance I faced I am proud to say I have thrived since my diagnosis. I want to put the message out there that living with HIV is not a hindrance to leading a full and prosperous life.