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The Day You Get Diagnosed With HIV

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD November 17, 2018

Introduction

Diagnosed HIV test positive

This blog focuses on the conversation physicians have with patients newly diagnosed with HIV. It is the seventh and final blog in the series on HIV and AIDS.

  • To read a discussion of HIV being eliminated from the body, click here.
  • For an explanation of what HIV and AIDS are, click here.
  • For an explanation how HIV and AIDS are contracted, click here.
  • To learn about signs and symptoms of HIV and AIDS, click here.
  • For an explanation of the risk of contracting HIV from specific acts of sexual intercourse, click here.
  • Also, for an explanation of the risk of contracting HIV from specific acts of sexual intercourse, click here.

The conversation on the day you get diagnosed with HIV

I’ve had many occasions to tell a patient they were HIV(+). Over the last 20 years of my doing so, that message has changed. It used to be a death sentence. Now, we are discussing a chronic disease that will need to be battled for a lifetime. That said, the responses still haven’t changed much. There are different conversations. Those for whom the diagnosis is a complete surprise (such as those who would have received it from a blood transfusion) tend to be quite emotional. Those who suspect they’ve been infected (e.g. through IV drug use or risky sexual practices) are often quite remorseful.

In general, the responses are much like they were for an earlier generation being told they’d contracted “The Big C (Cancer).”

A typical scenario

  • As I walk into the room, the patient is already in complete shock. It’s as if they’re thinking about the error of their ways and simultaneously not thinking at all.
  • The moment requires finesse. It’s easy to blow in and out of a room and drop this bomb of news; after all, it’s a busy emergency room. However, this is important. This is a moment when someone’s life will irreparably change. It will either be the first day of the rest of their life or the beginning of the end of their life.
  • Patients tend to want this information in private, although to a physician, this is a big red flag. This isn’t private information. Everyone in his or her life immediately became affected. Furthermore, it’s important to start lining up one’s support from the very beginning. I want the patient to have loved ones around to hear this information if they will consent.
  • “I need you to pay attention. Stay with me.” I tell patients this regardless of the outcome. The fact that this information is being provided in an ER instead of a primary care physician’s office is important. It usually means behavior modification begins immediately, regardless of the verdict.
  • Let’s get this out-of-the-way, because that’s what he or she wants to know. “You’re HIV(+).” Again: “I need you to pay attention, and stay with me.”

Topics to consider and discuss

We will discuss different topics.

  • What it means to be HIV(+).
  • What it means to have AIDS.
  • How the rest of one’s life is going to look with and without treatment.
  • What this will mean to one’s family, friends and other loved ones.
  • How to give the patient the best opportunity for success.

The conversation can be devastating or empowering. You may find this surprising, but a significant number of patients take this news as a rallying cry. In the same way a smoker is suddenly able to stop smoking cold turkey on the day of a heart attack, newly HIV(+) patients find the strength to stop IV drug abuse and alter other high risk activities.

State laws demand disclosure when diagnosed hiv positive

Here’s a bit of a disclaimer. It’s really not all about friends/family support. Efforts to inform and protect friends and family begin immediately. These are the very people who immediately become at risk once a significant other becomes HIV(+). They deserve to know they are at risk. In many ways it’s easiest to inform them from the very beginning. It’s certainly in their best interest to know as soon as possible.

diagnosed hiv patients do better when sharing status

Back to you and your diagnosis: you may have noticed I haven’t given you much time to breathe or grieve. You will have plenty of time for you to experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance after you leave the emergency room. In real-time, the virus is here. The need for risk management begins immediately. Unfortunately, it is likely this wasn’t being handled previously. The most important purpose of your visit wasn’t the launching of your grieving process but the mobilization of resources to treat you and protect others.

Summary

A final point: you really don’t want to go through this. Seeing the utter despair, fear and depression indicates that life at best will be very challenging to live. The steps to minimize your risks are so straightforward. It’s agonizing to see those newly diagnosed mentally retracing their steps. They know that wearing condoms, not being promiscuous or not engaging in needle use was within their control. Make better choices on the front end. After all, you probably wouldn’t knowingly step in front of a moving truck.

HIV test diagnosis

You really want to get tested.

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