Almost 11 years ago, I was told that I had HIV.
As an unemployed, broke college student looking for an easy way to make cash, I thought that donating plasma would be just the thing to put a little change in my pockets. So, I headed off to the plasma donation center. The process went smoothly, and I left thinking that perhaps I could become a regular plasma donor in lieu of finding a “real” job. The girl at the front desk did remind me that the center would call me after completing some testing to ensure that I was a worthy candidate for continued donations. At that point, though, I was already deciding what to do with the extra 80 bucks per week.
I took my exams and then went home for my first Christmas break as a college student. About halfway through the month-long break, I received a phone call from the plasma center.
Receptionist: “Hi, is this Mary?”
Me: “Yes, this is she.”
Receptionist: “I am calling about your results from the tests we did at the plasma center.”
Me: “Yes ma’am…”
Receptionist: “It appears that you have an abnormality in your results.”
Me: “Which is…”
Receptionist: “I’m sorry, I cannot disclose that information to you over the phone. You’ll have to make an appointment to come in and talk with one of the nurses.”
I still had about two weeks remaining of Christmas break, and I would not be returning to Norman from my home in the Dallas area before then. I told my mom what the receptionist had said, and we concluded that I was probably anemic. I still worried somewhat about my test results, but mostly I enjoyed the rest of my holiday and didn’t give much thought to the impending doom.
A new semester began, and I made my appointment to speak with the nurse at the plasma center. She firmly planted me in a chair in a private room and jumped straight to Question #1.
Nurse: “I’m going to need you to tell me everything about your sexual history. How many partners have you had?”
Nurse: “Uh, ma’am…?”
That woman didn’t know me from Adam, but she definitely thought that I was lying. She reminded me that “now is not the time to hide information” and asked me the same question about my sexual history (or lack thereof) in at least four different ways. She also presented several other questions before announcing, in a most exasperated tone,
“The reason I’m asking you all of these questions is because your tests came back positive for HIV.”
“Contact your doctor, good luck, and have a nice day.”
It was not a nice day.
I couldn’t get out of that place fast enough. I ran to my car and sobbed, unable to comprehend how this had happened. I thought through all of the possible, and even the impossible, scenarios in my head. Could I have gotten HIV from kissing someone? Did a doctor once use a dirty needle on me? I was responsible for the personal care of many adults at camp. Did I get some bodily fluid into a cut one time? Did I ever forget to wear gloves when changing someone?
I made an appointment with a family practice doctor in Norman, and I waited for what seemed like ages to get in as a new patient. Then I waited for more test results. Every hour of waiting was agony.
As it turns out, I do not have HIV.
I don’t think that the family practice doctor believed me about being a virgin any more than the nurse at the plasma center had, but he did explain that about one in every 10,000+ tests for HIV will come back with a false positive. I was the one in 10,000. I would not be allowed to donate blood or plasma again, but by then, an extra $80 per week was so not worth it to me. I breathed a big sigh of relief and moved on with my life as normal. Now, almost eleven years later, I can think about that story without being absolutely horrified.
I haven’t told the amazing part of all of this, although it is pretty amazing that I don’t have HIV.
When I was informed that I had a communicable disease, I had recently started dating Andrew. We had known each other for about five months and had been dating for two, maybe. After sitting down with the nurse that day in the plasma center, I debated whether or not I should break the bad news to Andrew. For some reason, I decided that I should. I remember sitting in his bedroom and crying for hours (literally) before I could get the words out. When I finally did say something, it probably sounded like this:
For a long time.
I felt sure that he was thinking of the kindest way to break up with me.
I don’t remember exactly what he eventually said, but he wrapped his arms around me, told me that all would be well, and reassured me that he still wanted me. He knew that staying with me meant that everything about our future would change if I did have HIV. And it didn’t matter.
We’ve been filling out stacks of papers for foster care, and tucked into the middle of one of those stacks are five pages of check boxes.
Would you accept a child with ________? What about ______? What if he/she has _____?
Essentially, all of these check boxes are asking the same thing:
Would you still love a child if … ?
There are legitimate reasons for checking certain boxes and leaving others blank. By no means are we checking every box. However, my heart breaks for all of the times that one of the children in the system has asked the question (verbally or otherwise), “Would you still love me if … ?” and someone has answered, “No. I will love you, but only with strings attached.”
There will be a host of tough things about foster care, but I can’t wait to look into a child’s eyes and say, “You’re loveable because I love you” or “I love you for no other reason, except that you’re (insert name here.)”
I want to do this because this is how I have been loved. My husband loves me this way daily, but ultimately, he is a mere reflection of the vast, unconditional love that Jesus has for me.
Maybe a foster child has heard words of reassurance before, but likely she hasn’t. So whether she’s hearing, “A thousand times, YES!” for the first time or the 51st, I hope those three little letters take root, and I hope that, deep down, she believes them.
Mary Rachel Fenrick
Mary Rachel is a wife to her college sweetheart, Andrew; adoptive mom to Piper; biological mom to Caroline; and foster mom to several. A former Texan, she currently resides in Norman, Oklahoma, and is pursuing a degree in Dental Hygiene after teaching special education in the public school system for six years. Mary Rachel loves Jesus, coffee, distance running, good books, and everything Paleo (in that order). She blogs at www.thefenricks.com.