World AIDS Day is Dec. 1, and and it is the mission of the Wellness Empowerment Center to educate the Georgia Tech community about HIV/AIDS and safer sex practices, encourage individuals to get tested regularly, and empower everyone to take charge of their own health and to seek resources and treatment, if necessary.

According to hiv.gov, about 1.2 million people in the U.S. have HIV, and 13% of them don’t know they have it. Although new infections have declined in the past five years, adolescents and young adults remain at higher risk, with 58% of new infections occurring in people between ages 13 to 34. This is why it’s critical for everyone, especially college students, to practice safe sex, get tested regularly, and know their options when it comes to prevention and treatment. 

 

For Wellness Empowerment Center health educator Richelle Fields, the work of administering tests, providing resources, and educating the public is only part of the job; lending compassionate support to those in need and reducing the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS is what motivates her to continue the work. Her experience as a health educator in North Carolina working with high-risk populations changed her perception of the illness and created a personal connection.

 

As part of her work, Fields was responsible for notifying patients about their HIV positive test results and guiding them through the difficult days ahead. She said she vividly remembered the first time she had to deliver the news that would change her patient’s life.

 

“That day will forever remain in my head. With my first positive case, the nurse gave me the news, and I had to tell the patient. They were trembling and crying because they kind of already knew,” Fields said. “They broke down crying, and internally, I broke down crying, but I had to step into the professional role.”

 

Fields, who developed a friendship with the patient, delivered the news of HIV positive results, but her job didn’t end there. She kept in touch with the patient, worked with community partners to provide aid with treatment, finances, and housing, and saw firsthand how leading with compassion can positively impact a newly diagnosed patient’s experience.

 

“My heart went out to them. They had no support, they felt like they couldn’t tell anyone, including their family and friends,” Fields said. “Thankfully, we caught it in time. We caught it early enough for them to start treatment, and they became undetectable, which means it's not transmissible at that point, if they remain on their medication. They got the courage to tell their family about the diagnosis, and to come out as gay at the same time.”

 

This story has a happy ending thanks to early testing, treatment, and a supportive community, and that’s the message that Fields and the rest of the W.E. Center team want to share with Georgia Tech.

 

“HIV is not a death sentence. It warms my heart to be able to support those who are HIV positive and let them know that they can live a great life,” she said. “You don't know what you don't know. Just like we get an annual checkup with our dentist or primary doctor, it's always good to get tested as a baseline to know your status when you are sexually active. We also encourage you to test when changing sexual partners.”

 

World AIDS Day is December 1, 2023, and it is the mission of the W.E. Center to educate the Georgia Tech community about HIV/AIDS and safer sex practices, encourage individuals to get tested regularly, and empower everyone to take charge of their own health and to seek resources and treatment, if necessary.

 

W.E. Center will be partnering with the LGBTQIA Resource Center, another department within Student Engagement and Well-Being, to offer a World AIDS Day resource fair on December 1st from 10 AM – 1 PM in the Northside Room on the third floor of the John Lewis Student Center. The resource fair will include education, activities, and giveaways, plus free HIV testing.

 

“This year, our focus is to let our local communities lead, and here in Atlanta, HIV has a high prevalence,” Fields said. “Even though a student may not be sexually active, they can help educate the Georgia Tech community, which in turn can help educate the Atlanta community.”

 

The W.E. Center offers free mobile HIV testing bi-weekly throughout the semester, as well as education and resources related to sexual health. Students who have paid their health fee can also visit Stamps Health Services for HIV prevention and treatment support. For further questions about the services and resources available on campus, students, faculty, and staff can reach out to the W.E. Center at 404.894.9980 or email healthy@gatech.edu.

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