How being diagnosed with HIV led me on to a career in Biomedical Science.

There has been so much discussion in the media lately around HIV. In the wake of the series ‘it’s a sin’ I have reached a conclusion that it’s time to be brave and ‘come out’ (again). The face of HIV has changed astronomically in the last 20 years. I wanted to talk about it for several reasons… for a very long time I felt shame and the stigma. And part of overcoming that shame is to be honest with myself and to accept that this is who I am and that HIV doesn’t define me. I contracted the virus from my first and only partner – so we can throw away the ‘he must be promiscuous’ assumption right now. I was just unlucky…

Of all the things to catch it had to be that didn’t it?

During that time I was actually training to be a nurse and I was working in ICU. What hit me hardest was seeing a woman die from pneumocystis jiroveci (PCP). She had no idea she was positive and they had to test her children… it was agonising to watch, even more so knowing that could have been me had I not got tested. I must have spent an hour in the sluice sobbing. It felt like the universe was playing a really cruel trick on me making me watch this scenario unfold – I actually decided that I couldn’t continue with my training. I had what I now recognise was a complete mental breakdown. I went out drinking every night, stopped going to lectures , stopped eating, broke all contact with my family for 2 years to hide it all from them…I must have easily lost 5 stone with worry.

I got myself a job working in a bar to get by – and I just remember feeling so low that I confided in a friend who later divulged my status to other work colleagues… this led to a lot of bullying and social exclusion. After my hiatus – and many many many psychological interventions, I decided the only way I could come out of the other side of this was to feel the pain and work through it. I, in my ignorance thought I was going to die and my fear was never seeing my brothers and sisters grow up. I was 19 then, I’m now 34 and I have seen them grow, graduate and have their own families. Something I am eternally grateful for.

There are moments I still struggle with my core sense of self . I battle through the anxiety and the worry. Ageing with HIV is no walk in the park but in spite of that I’ve managed to keep my viral load undetectable for the past 7 years and my white Cell count is higher than average .

You take on a new identity living with HIV and you go through a second adolescence, where still figuring out who you are and for a while you’re angry at the world. I came through that thankfully and I have the support of my family.

After a string of dead end jobs, which left me unfulfilled I moved back up north and decided I wanted to help people in a different capacity. Cue UCAS applications to study Biomedical science.

I poured everything I had into my studies and learned everything I could about how the human body functioned in health and disease. I remember sitting my clinical immunology exam in third year and there was a question on HIV. I said to myself ‘ right Carl, this is your time to shine’. I did something in that moment that allowed me to face the virus in both a literal and metaphorical sense.

That year I graduated with a first class honours degree. I’m almost qualified as a BMS now after securing a post. Whenever I deal with patient samples in my role, it never escapes me that that sample was once my own. And whilst I can’t care for patients directly, I can empathise with the worry and anxiety that patients face in times of uncertainty. I love what I do for that reason alone, and it has been a complete privilege to play a small role in the diagnosis and treatment of those people. Every sample is a patient with a story to tell. And because of my own story I am acutely aware of the patient behind the sample. I am fiercely passionate about Biomedical science and where it fits into patient care.

Pursuing this career has given me a sense of purpose that I never had and it has increased my self confidence. Those are the things that define me as a person , not HIV.

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