You look up as the doctor enters the clinic room. You notice the solemn eyes. You don’t recall much of what he or she said after hearing, “I have your results. You’ve tested positive for HIV.”
This is the scenario facing thousands of teens each year.
Miami has the highest rate of HIV infection in the United States. But what many parents don’t realize is that teens account for more than 25 percent of new infections. Even more alarming is the fact that 60 percent of youth don’t realize they’re infected, and perhaps most disturbing is the number of adolescents who must go through a diagnosis and treatment alone, lacking the support of a parent or loved one.
When I’ve personally delivered an HIV-positive test result to a young person, I’ve witnessed a gamut of reactions, from complete shock and denial to wailing or a stiff upper lip. Many of our patients cannot see a bright future, particularly if they do not have a support system to offer comfort and encouragement.
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We urge these young patients to make lifelong goals and work toward their personal dreams. I often tell our patients, “You are not really living with HIV. This virus is living with you. You are going to attain all your life’s goals; this virus is just coming along for the ride.” This message is easier to believe with the reassurance of a parent.
As a licensed HIV counselor and tester, as are all staff at UHealth – University of Miami Health System’s Adolescent Counseling and Testing Service (ACTS), my first responsibility is to make sure parents and patients understand the test result. Next we discuss their support system. But all too often those young teens receive the diagnosis while sitting alone in the exam room.
Young people who access HIV and STD testing should be applauded for taking responsibility for their health care, but too many times when they are diagnosed with an infection their support system turns its back on them. Sexual partners can understandably be angry at this news (and may or may not know of their own diagnosis), and friends and family are quick to wag their fingers and start the blame game. This leaves the recently diagnosed patient with a sense of shame.
Minors can access testing and treatment for STDs, including HIV, because of Florida Statute 381.34, which is in place to protect the minor and allow him or her the option of testing. But when diagnosed with a disease such as HIV, how many of these youth become lost in the world because they do not have the support of their parents?
Many of the adolescents I have diagnosed do not have a traditional support system. For those that do, it is an extremely difficult time for them to suddenly approach mom or dad and deliver this news.
Last year, a mom shocked her son when he informed her of his diagnosis. Our patient feared her reaction would not have a positive outcome, and had been hesitant about informing her. He was reminded that management of his HIV was his choice, but having a support system could only help. He had the ACTS staff in the room with him as he informed his mother. She took a moment to understand the news, then leaned over, hugged him and told him how much she loved him. She then turned to the staff and asked, “What are the next steps?”
She was ready for the fight. Many parents are not.
When a young person receives a diagnosis like this, all you can hope is that a parent will listen and offer unconditional love. Upon hearing your child is HIV positive, it is a time for strength and an opportunity to display our number one parental trait, devotion. It is not the time for blame, disappointment or anger. You should be there for your child.
I hope as a parent that, if you are faced with this daunting challenge, you too will support your child no matter what. According to Kaiser Family Foundation research, young people rate parents as their top source of information about sex. Knowing this, it’s understandable if parents feel they have failed if their child acquires HIV. But parents who support and become partners in their child’s HIV care will become a foundation for their child as he or she learns how to manage a life affected by the virus.
If you suspect your child has been exposed to HIV and need more information, or to schedule an appointment, call ACTS at (305) 243-2174.
Alex Moreno, MPH, is the clinical program manager of ACTS, part of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at UHealth – the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics or www.p2ponline.org.