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Casey House spa aims to destroy the stigma that makes people with HIV feel untouched

Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press

Published Friday, 30 November 2018 12:35 EST

Last Updated Friday, November 30, 2018 12:36 EST

TORONTO – Randy Davis remembers attending a social event not long after he was diagnosed with HIV and watched as the hostess welcomed the guest succession, giving each warm hug. But when his turn arrived, her hand went up and he suggested that he not get too close because he was cold.

"Their reason for not hugging me was to protect me from their cold," Davis said, who was open about his HIV status. "But all night, they still hugged other people."

It was a lesson, as if Davis needed one, from the constant stigmatization of those with HIV-AIDS, based on the fear of many that they were somehow at risk of being infected through simple touching actions.

And that is the belief that Casey House, a stand-alone Toronto HIV-AIDS hospital, hopes to help eliminate the pop-up spa that offers free massages to the general public provided by HIV-positive volunteers who are given training in healing arts.

The Healing House, running Friday and Saturday (World AIDS Day) in a separate location in downtown Toronto, aims to involve community members in discussions about the myth that shaking one's hand, touching their bare arm or exchanging hugs is a potential means of catching a virus.

Along with that, the spa is a reminder of the needs and strength of touch.

"It really creates a relationship between one human being and another, and that ensures that we don't feel alone," said Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House, which was founded in 1988 to care for those suffering from the disease.

"This is the warmth of a person's skin on your skin which makes us feel comfortable and entertained and safe, secure, and loved," he said. "Without it, this is a very quiet world, I would imagine."

But people with HIV are often denied experience – the fact covered in the Leger survey conducted for Casey House, which found that while 91 percent of Canadians believed that human nature wanted to be touched, only 38 percent said they would be willing to share skin-to-person contact – skin with anyone diagnosed with a virus.

While Americans are a little more willing to touch someone with HIV-AIDS (41 percent), more than a quarter of those surveyed in separate US polls believe that they can contract HIV through skin-to-skin interactions, compared to one-fifth of people Canada.

"It's very difficult for the human soul – and we know that touch is very important," Simons said. "So it's really encouraging to have a public conversation about HIV to try to challenge people's thinking and behavior."

For this reason, Casey House recruited Melissa Doldron, a registered massage therapist for the Toronto Blue Jays, to teach 15 HIV-positive volunteers the basics of therapy.

Doldron said community members could choose a 10-minute hand and forearm massage or register for a chair massage, which included stress manipulation of the back, neck, shoulders and scalp.

Massage has many benefits throughout the body, stimulating the vascular, lymphatic and neurological systems and providing stress relief and encouraging relaxation, he said.

"So massage helps both physiologically and psychologically. For anyone who deals with disease, the benefits are doubled."

Davis, who works as a male sexual health coordinator at the Gilbert Center in Barrie, Ontario, where he lives with her husband, believes that touch is important for everyone, HIV-positive or not.

"I remember when I was first diagnosed, the first thing that came to my head – and I was single at the time – was that I would be alone for the rest of my life and no one would love me, let alone touch me or hug me, "Davis, who volunteered to become one of the doctors at the Casey House event.

"When I revealed my status, many people close to me were warm and caring, but acquaintances, medical professionals and people who did not know me well showed signs of clear discomfort and made excuses not to touch me."

Nearly 40 years after the onset of the always deadly AIDS epidemic, the fear that someone can be infected only through ordinary touch is still alive. But for many people, antiviral drugs today can reduce HIV in the body to undetectable levels, so it is very unlikely they can transmit the virus to other people, even through sex.

Davis, who began using antivirals as soon as he was diagnosed at the beginning of 2015, considered HIV a chronic disease that for him was easily managed. "I take pills a day and that's all."

The hope for spa pop-ups is that people will come not only for massages, but also to learn about people living with HIV – "so they can feel comfortable and realize that, you know what, we don't risk anyone. "

"For me it's a big thing. It's not a virus that we have to fight, it's a stigma that needs to be fought for."

Surveys from 1,581 Canadians and 1,501 Americans have recently been carried out using Leger's online panel, LegerWeb. A probability sample of the same size will produce an error margin of around plus-minus 2.5 percent, 19 times that of 20.

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