Dennis Milam Bensie remembers what it was like being tested for HIV in the middle of the AIDS crises. Decades later, he tries the new at-home HIV test for the very first time.
In 1989, two friends of mine from college were diagnosed with AIDS. Mykel and Brian didn’t get infected in the big city: they contracted HIV in rural, southern Illinois where I’m from. The diagnosis was a death sentence back then. The news scared me enough to get my first AIDS test a few weeks later. I was twenty-four years old at the time and terrified that I had AIDS, too.
It took two visits to a clinic and a ten day wait, but my very first HIV test results came back from the lab as negative.
With regular HIV screenings, I know my HIV status has stayed negative for the last twenty-four years.
In December 2012, the FDA approved the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test. The convenience and privacy aspect of the test appealed to me, so I did a little research online.
Various reports estimate the accuracy rate of OraQuick to be somewhere between 92% to 99% if the test is performed correctly: one in 5,000 would get a false positive, and one in twelve could get a false negative. OraSure Technologies offer a 24 hour question line and they stress that a positive result from the home test should be confirmed by a doctor.
Doctors and scientists seem to mostly agree that the home HIV test was a step in the right direction: the normalization of the disease. But I was saddened by the debate on a few message boards I found. Many readers had some valid concerns about the OraQuick like I did, but there were also some hateful and judgmental comments:
“I’m sure the liberals and Obamacare nuts will cry until they make this home HIV test free.”
“I wonder how many people will get a positive test at home and immediately decide to kill themselves. I know I would.”
“I have my own HIV test for people: Are you gay? Then you FAIL–you’re going to die from AIDS anyway.”
“Oh, great. This is what rampant promiscuity and feminism gets us.”
“How long before the test is available for blacks to purchase on their EBT cards?”
The ignorant comments didn’t exactly surprise me: haters will always hate. But since it was time for me to get tested, I decided to try the new OraQuick test out.
HIV IN A RETAIL STORE
I have always been nervous whenever I went to a clinic to get an HIV test. Even thought I felt pretty sure that my test would come back negative this time, I was still anxious. Performing the test at home by myself did add to the stress level a bit, but it was nothing I couldn’t handle.
I went to my Seattle neighborhood Bartell’s drug store to get the test. I assumed it would be something special one would have to obtain directly from a pharmacist. Even though I am an openly gay man, I found myself a bit self conscious at the thought of asking for the test out loud. It’s not often you have to say “HIV” in a retail store. Nonetheless, I marched up to the counter and asked the pharmacy cashier for the “home HIV test”.
“We keep those out on the floor,” said the sixty-something year old woman. She then walked me to a shelve of over the counter drug tests for marijuana and harder drugs.
“These are not HIV tests; they are drugs tests,” I said.
“Oh, that’s not the same thing?” she asked me.
“No,” I said.
The cashier went back and asked the pharmacist, who peered through the glass at me like I was a degenerate. The cashier then called a store manager who nervously walked me over to the condom and lube aisle where the HIV tests lived on the bottom shelf. I paid $30 for the test and decided I would administer it that day.
Despite the weird reactions of the store’s staff, it seemed so pedestrian to me as I drove home: home hair color, home pregnancy tests, and now this.
“…Because Knowing Is The Best Thing”
Everything on the pristine, white OraQuick box was printed in both English and Spanish side by side. On the front of the box I read the statement, “…because knowing is the best thing“. There was one single test per box and the kit had an expiration date of two years.
I had no idea what to expect when I opened the kit. What I found was a white plastic box that measured 7″ by 6″. I opened the lid to find a built-in ring binder with cardboard flip notes that contained the test’s step by step instructions. There was a test tube holder mounted on the inside of the lid, and a desk-like drawer in the bottom of the kit which contained all the equipment needed.
The test itself appeared to be very simple: one simply takes the test stick and swab their top and bottom gums, then drop the stick into the test tube of liquid. The instructions warned the user to wait twenty minutes in bold print at least five times all over the kit. OraQuick provides some pamphlets about HIV to distract you while you wait. There was a paper shield to cover the test reader to discourage peeking.
I skipped the literature. At-home test or not, the waiting was still torturous. I set the timer on my IPhone and made myself some lunch. I was putting on an act for myself as I tried to pretend that I wasn’t worried.
While I ate my macaroni and cheese, I did the, “What am I going to do if the results are positive?” routine.
I’ve been through the drill so many times before: If this test turns up positive, I promise myself to do everything possible to maintain a healthy and happy life.
I was putting my lunch plate in the sink when my twenty minutes were up. I ceremoniously sat down in front of the white plastic box, took a deep breath and pulled back the paper sheath that covered the test reader: there was only one line on the grid.
Two lines mean HIV-positive.
I was HIV negative.
The OraQuick test provided a plain plastic bag in the bottom drawer of the kit. As instructed, I put the swab and test tube in the bag, sealed it closed and put it in my kitchen garbage can.
This method of HIV testing is not necessarily for everyone. But I think it is important. I only wish this option had been available to me and my friends, in the beginning of the AIDS crisis.
Mykel died in 1991, and Brian died in 1996.
Photo: AP/April Saul