30 Faces of HIV – Four

By Shayne Woodsmith, Faces of Edmonton


“How did you start working with HIV Edmonton?”

“From the time I was a medical student, I’ve been interested in HIV. In fact, I remember the very first patient I saw—it would have been in 1986 in England because that’s where I went to medical school. She happened to be a female which was a bit unusual because at the time it affected mostly gay men. This lady had swollen lymph glands, so they had to take her to the operating room, and the porters arrived in space suits, literally. I was working with one of the few infectious diseases doctors at the time, and he was really mad and he told them they had to go away and that they couldn’t take her until they took the space suits off … There was so much fear around HIV in the early years mostly because people didn’t know what was going on, and actually, there’s still a bit of that going on. For example, police and emergency workers having to get patients. When I was with Alberta Health, we, on occasion, had to issue public health orders to bring people in for treatment for, say, syphilis or something and we’d get these calls where police and emergency workers would ask what they needed to wear and we would explain that you don’t need to where anything … we still have work to do there, about how HIV is passed on … It’s been around for what seems like forever. It’s really interesting, despite all of the information available on the internet, people still have misconceptions about how it’s passed on.”

“People still ask really basic questions like, ‘Can I get it by hugging someone who has it? or by kissing or drinking from the same glass? or from using the same utensils?’—really really basic stuff like that … We have a communications problem with AIDS. On the one hand, we’re saying, ‘Don’t get it. But on the other side, if you get it, it’s not so bad.’ It’s become a chronic, manageable disease for people who take the medications regularly; they can do very well, but that’s a big if. I have a lot of patients who don’t take their medications and are still dying of AIDS. Usually socially they are very unstable—using drugs or in an abusive situation. There’s mental health issues, so it’s very very sad … That’s a minority of our patients, but they consume a lot of resources, and some people don’t want to be helped or aren’t in a position where they can be helped. Until we can address some of these other issues … in the end, it’s about poverty and it’s about history, so those things are going to take a long time to change. But it does make me very sad to see people still die of AIDS, and it is happening. We do see that, but it shouldn’t be. We have access to all kinds of resources, but still … Among the men who have sex with men, that’s where we’re seeing HIV coming back as well. That’s concerning, and the messaging there gets really complicated, and I don’t know what the answer is there, I really don’t. I think this is where working with the community is really important to try to come up with strategies around how to address this.”

Photography Credit: Shayne Woodsmith
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