Casey House spa aims to smash stigma that leaves people with HIV feeling untouchable

Casey House spa aims to smash stigma that leaves people with HIV feeling untouchable

TORONTO — Randy Davis remembers attending a social function not long after he’d been diagnosed with HIV and watching as the hostess greeted a succession of guests, giving each a warm hug. But when his turn came, the woman’s hand went up and she suggested he not get too close because she had a cold.

“Their excuse for not hugging me was to protect me from their cold,” said Davis, who was open about his HIV status. “Yet throughout the night, they’re still hugging other people.”

It was a lesson, as if Davis needed one, of the continuing stigmatization of those with HIV-AIDS, based on many people’s fears that they are somehow at risk of infection through the simple act of touching.

And it’s a belief that Casey House, a stand-alone Toronto HIV-AIDS hospital, is hoping to help dispel with a pop-up spa that is offering free massages to the general public provided by HIV-positive volunteers given training in the healing art.

The #SMASHSTIGMA event, running Friday and Saturday (World AIDS Day) at the downtown hospital, is aimed at engaging members of the public in discussions about the myth that shaking someone’s hand, touching their bare arm or exchanging a hug are potential means for catching the virus.

Along with that, the “Healing House” spa is a reminder of the need for and the power of touch.

“It really creates connections between one human and another, and it ensures that we don’t feel alone,” said Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House, which was founded in 1988 to care for those with the disease.

“It’s the warmth of somebody’s skin on your skin that makes us feel comfortable and comforted and safe and secure and loved,” she said. “Without that, it’s a very lonely world, I would imagine.”

Yet people with HIV are often denied that experience — a fact borne out in a Leger survey conducted for Casey House, which found that while 91 per cent of Canadians believe it’s human nature to want to experience touch, only 38 per cent of respondents said they would be willing to share skin-to-skin contact with anyone diagnosed with the virus.

While Americans are slightly more willing to touch someone with HIV-AIDS (41 per cent), more than a quarter of those surveyed in a separate U.S. poll believed they could contract HIV through skin-to-skin interaction, compared to one-fifth of Canadians.

“That’s really tough for the human spirit — and we know that touch is so important,” said Simons. “So that was really the impetus to have a public conversation about HIV to try to challenge people’s thinking and behaviour.”

To that end, Casey House recruited Melissa Doldron, the registered massage therapist for the Toronto Blue Jays, to teach 15 HIV-positive volunteers the fundamentals of the therapy.

Doldron said members of the public can opt for a 10-minute hand and forearm massage or sign up for a chair massage, which includes tension-releasing manipulation of the back, neck, shoulders and scalp.

Massage has numerous benefits throughout the body, stimulating the vascular, lymphatic and neurological systems as well as providing stress relief and promoting relaxation, she said.

“So massage helps both physiologically and psychologically. For anyone who’s dealing with illness, the benefits are two-fold.”

Davis, who works as the men’s sexual health co-ordinator at the Gilbert Centre in Barrie, Ont., where he lives with his husband, believes touch is essential for everyone, HIV-positive or not.

“I remember when I was first diagnosed, the first thing that came into my head — and I was single at the time — was that I’d be alone for the rest of my life and no one would ever love me again, let alone touch me or hug me,” said Davis, who volunteered to be one of the healers at the Casey House event.

“When I disclosed my status, many people close to me were warm and caring, but acquaintances, medical professionals and people who didn’t know me well showed obvious signs of discomfort and made excuses not to touch me.”

Almost 40 years after the start of the once always-deadly AIDS epidemic, the lingering fear that someone can get infected merely through casual touch isn’t only wrong, it’s also ironic. Today’s antiviral medications typically reduce HIV in the body to undetectable levels, making it highly unlikely the virus can be transmitted to another person, even through sex.

“The HIV virus has become manageable,” said Davis, who began taking antivirals soon after his early 2015 diagnosis. “It’s a chronic illness that is easier to manage in many cases than diabetes. I take a pill a day and that’s it.”

His hope for the pop-up spa is that people will come not just for a massage, but also to learn about people living with HIV — “so that they can feel comfortable and realize that, you know what, we are not a risk to anybody.”

“That for me is the big thing. It’s not the virus we need to fight, it’s the stigma that needs to be fought.”

The surveys of 1,581 Canadians and 1,501 Americans were recently conducted using Leger’s online panel, LegerWeb. Probability samples of the same size would yield a margin of error of roughly plus-minus 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

— Follow @SherylUbelacker on Twitter.

Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

Firefighters and emergency services workers helped celebrate Barry Young’s 85th birthday at Timberstone Mews on May 29. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
Firefighters in central Alberta make birthdays special

A fire truck arriving outside your house is not normally good news.… Continue reading

The Government of Alberta identified 115 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, bringing the provincial total to 3,089.
(Black Press file photo)
Red Deer drops to 71 active cases of COVID-19

Province adds 127 new cases of the virus

Crimson Villas, a seniors housing facility in Red Deer has finally opened its doors. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Red Deer senior housing facility opens its doors

Crimson Villas, named after Red Deer’s official flower, has officially bloomed. The… Continue reading

The Town of Ponoka, who has typically leased the main stampede grounds to the Ponoka Stampede and Exhibition Association, is transferring the land to the association. (Photo by Emily Jaycox/Ponoka News)
AB Gov’t to provide more grants for live event organizers

Live events will be getting a boost from the provincial government over… Continue reading

Alberta government committed $7 million last year for an integrated shelter service to help Red Deer's homeless population. (Photo by Advocate staff)
City of Red Deer finds only one viable location for emergency shelter

City of Red Deer administration is recommending the Cannery Row Emergency Shelter… Continue reading

A large number of supporters were out Saturday at a rally intended to bring awareness about including Hinduism in the grade 2 portion of the K-6 draft curriculum. As it stands now, Hinduism won’t be taught until grade 6 in the proposed draft curriculum. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Video: Rally to support adding Hinduism to draft curriculum draws crowd in Red Deer

The Hindu community in Red Deer came out in droves on Saturday… Continue reading

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Germany's Robin Gosens, left, celebrates Germany's Mats Hummels after scoring his side's fourth goal during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group F match between Portugal and Germany at the football arena stadium in Munich, Saturday, June 19, 2021. (Matthias Hangst/Pool Photo via AP)
Germany clicks at Euro 2020 with 4-2 win over Portugal

MUNICH (AP) — Germany finally clicked into gear at the European Championship,… Continue reading

Fans cheer on their team during the pre-game warmup of Game 3 of the NHL Stanley Cup semifinal with the Montreal Canadiens facing the Vegas Golden Knights, in Montreal, Friday, June 18, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
COVID-19 concerns give way to Habs Fever in Quebec as Montreal continues playoff run

MONTREAL — The sun hadn’t yet risen in Montreal on Friday morning… Continue reading

Coronavirus cases are on the rise from India to South Africa and Mexico, in a May 19, 2020 story. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
As Brazil tops 500,000 deaths, protests against president

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Anti-government protesters took to the streets in… Continue reading

A black bear cub forages for food along a salmon stream below a bear viewing spot for tourists in the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area in Juneau, Alaska.  (File photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Bandit responsible for vehicle break-ins is a black bear

THORNTON, N.H. (AP) — Surveillance video helped police get to the bottom… Continue reading

FILE - In this April 25, 2019 file photo, Editor Rick Hutzell, center, gives a speech to his staff including Chase Cook, Nicki Catterlin, Rachael Pacella, Selene San Felice and Danielle Ohl at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. The editor of the Capital Gazette, which won a special Pulitzer Prize citation for its coverage and courage in the face of a massacre in its newsroom, is leaving the Maryland newspaper. Hutzell, who worked at the Annapolis paper for more than three decades, authored a farewell column that was published on the paper's website Saturday, June 19, 2021. (Ulysses Muoz/The Baltimore Sun via AP)
Editor of paper that endured newsroom shooting says goodbye

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The editor of the Capital Gazette, which won… Continue reading

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II look on, during day five of of the Royal Ascot horserace meeting, at Ascot Racecourse, in Ascot, England, Saturday June 19, 2021. (David Davies/PA via AP)
Queen beams as she returns to Ascot after COVID-19 hiatus

LONDON (AP) — Queen Elizabeth II was smiling broadly as she attended… Continue reading

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20 per cent of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, data suggests

TORONTO — Canada has hit two of the vaccination targets government officials… Continue reading

Most Read