By Doug Callahan
For those dealing with an HIV or AIDS diagnosis, emotional support can be as important as medical care.
Jay Irvine, the office manager at the Metropolitan Community Church of Richmond, said the church offers that exact thing locally, with its HIV/AIDS ministry.
“Most of the people who come to MCC are those that don’t feel comfortable worshipping in other churches,” Irvine said.
“Those that have been turned away because of sexual orientation or things they’ve done in the past. But we accept anyone who walks in the front door.”
Irvine first became involved with the church shortly after his own diagnosis.
“After my diagnosis of AIDS in 2004, I went through a period in my life where I need to get back in touch with God,” Irvine said.
“And so in July of 2005, I wanted to get back involved with the church. I didn’t know much about MCC at the time, so I just walked in the front door and they accepted me for who I was, no matter where I’d been or what I’d done.”
The HIV/AIDS ministry meets on the first Thursday of every month and is open to anyone who needs the support.
“We plan from month to month, whether it consists of just getting together and having a meal and sitting around talking about different issues, to going out to baseball games and going out to eat,” Irvine said.
“We try to do things that meet the needs of the people that join the group because some of us aren’t as healthy as others so we have to keep that in consideration. ”
“My passion is to help those who are newly diagnosed deal with their diagnosis,” Irvine said.
“And let them know that being diagnosed with HIV or AIDS is not the end. It’s just a new beginning for them.”
Irvine strongly suggests reaching out, soon after the diagnosis.
“I would say they need to find a support group right away,” Irvine said.
“I don’t think anyone should have to deal with this diagnosis alone.”
It’s no surprise that there is a need for support in the community, since Richmond and neighboring Petersburg each have an HIV/AIDS rate of around 50 cases per 100,000 people, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
“Any time where you have pockets of poverty and unequal access to health care, you’re going to see these inequities,” said Elaine Martin, the director of HIV prevention at the Virginia Department of Health.
In addition to overseeing state and federal funding for HIV prevention, Martin’s department also organizes outreach events, aimed at educating and testing members of at-risk communities.
“That’s a really great way to get people tested because people don’t always go to their doctor and ask for an HIV test,” Martin said.
“By offering testing in the community whether it’s at a neighborhood bar, or through a mobile van, or just being set up in a neighborhood, it gives an opportunity for people to test where they live, without having to make an appointment at a clinic or something like that. We tend to find a higher percentage of people who are testing positive when we do outreach-based testing.”
For those who have been diagnosed, Martin said her first bit of advice is to begin receiving care right away.
“Even if they feel fine,” Martin said. “They need to have the health of their immune system monitored on a regular basis. That’s the most important thing.”
In addition to medical care, Martin also stresses the importance of support networks to help cope with the diagnosis. To help provide that, her department contacted the “HIV Stops With Me” campaign to come to Richmond.
“The whole mission of the campaign is to empower people who are HIV positive,” said Melanie Manghinang, a senior project manager.
The campaign puts up billboards featuring HIV-positive spokesmodels with messages of protection and disclosure, but the heart of “HIV Stops With Me” is its website, which serves as a medium for dialogue.
“It really is a community of support, a community of empowerment,” Manghinang said. “And we’re really trying to reduce the stigma of this HIV positive status.”
The data for this story came from the Virginia Department of Health’s quarterly surveillance report, HIV Diagnoses by Health Region and City/County for 2nd Quarter 2010.