Overcoming HIV diagnosis to help others

SINGAPORE - Marketing executive Pierre (not his real name) was on a plane bound for Washington to attend the World Aids Conference last July when a man he knew hurled himself off a block of flats.

The man was a member of the HIV Orientation Programme (HOP) and Agape support groups Pierre had founded for people with HIV, the virus that causes Aids.

"He was depressed and pressured from all sides. His family rejected him; he had medical complications and financial problems. When he couldn't get me, he thought I had abandoned him too," recalled Pierre.

"With medication and treatment, HIV infection is now a manageable condition. What kills now is not the virus but the discrimination."

The 42-year-old university graduate knows what it is like to be overwhelmed by hopelessness. In 2006, he was diagnosed with the virus.

He was then reeling from a messy divorce, the deaths of a close friend and his father, whose hefty cancer treatment bill had not only wiped out his savings but also left him deep in debt. Then he lost his job too.

He believes he was infected with HIV during what he claims was a single sexual encounter with a man.

His diagnosis drove him suicidal. He ended up seeing a psychiatrist for more than three years.

He did not tell his mother or three siblings.

"I would often hide in a corner and cry. I cut myself with razors, I would shower several times a day because I felt so unclean."

More than a month passed before he finally saw a doctor at Tan Tock Seng Hospital's (TTSH) Communicable Diseases Centre and was immediately put on a regimen of anti-retrovirals. Today, he weighs more than 80kg and is well.

"I don't know what would have happened to me if not for my doctor and my social worker," he said.

Ms Ho Lai Peng, principal social worker at TTSH, remembers how devastated he was when she first met him.

"We would have sessions lasting two hours or more each time as he struggled with his diagnosis and other issues. He was so distraught that I had to accompany him on his weekly visits to see his psychiatrist," she added.

Over time, he started to cope. A friend found him a job and he started participating in activities organised by Action for Aids.

"I learnt I was not alone. I became more involved and started to volunteer. I felt the need not just to help others but also to help myself," he said.

In 2009, he started HOP, with the support of doctors, nurses, psychiatrists and social workers at TTSH.

The group helps those newly diagnosed with HIV by offering support and information on issues ranging from disclosure to discrimination and mental health to nutrition.

A year later, he helped to set up Agape, a platform for people living with HIV to gain peer support and to build self-confidence through social activities.

One of its projects is the Picture Positive Photography Exhibition which showcases works by 20 people with HIV, documenting their thoughts and experiences living with the virus.

The exhibition - which ended last week at TTSH - will move to the Singapore General Hospital from July 1 to Aug 10.

Polytechnic student Derek (not his real name), 20, who was diagnosed with HIV two years ago, said HOP and Agape have helped him tremendously.

"It helps to know here are people in your shoes who know what you're going through. Ordinary friends may not understand," he said.

Meanwhile, Pierre - whose photo of closed doors is featured in the exhibition - hopes society will open its doors to people with HIV.

In the text accompanying his photo, he says: "Open the doors, open to a new world. Behold, for you hold the keys... to love, be loved and give love."

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