You can grab free coffee after getting tested for HIV at this “cafè”

There are two things I’m worried about while I am on the way to LoveYourself Welcome. One, even now in my 20s, I rarely go to medical-related appointments without my mother. Second, the Grab driver has pulled over, telling me that this unfamiliar place in Manila is the destination I pinned.

I get off the car with my heart pounding. “What if I’m lost? What if the driver dropped me off at the wrong destination?” I pull out my phone and quickly search for the exact address. As soon as I figure how to get to Love Yourself, my worries take a different form: “What if the line is too long? What if the blood extraction hurts? What if,” despite a certain degree of confidence, “I am HIV positive?”

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Maybe coffee will help?

Tucked along a residential street, LoveYourself Welcome looks out of place. If not for the tiny Love Yourself marker, the somewhat brutalist façade looks like an unassuming coffee shop. And it is really like a coffee shop inside.

Wooden tables and metal chairs are scattered throughout the two-story hub. Walls are bare concrete. By the staircase, there are bookshelves and a plant-filled corner. Then, the biggest wall showcases a LoveYourself graffiti. There’s a faint scent of freshly brewed coffee in the air. And to complete the vibe, LoveYourself volunteers sport a denim apron with the organization’s logo on it. There’s nothing clinical or intimidating in this space—they’re even playing ‘90s Mariah Carey during my visit.

“This move aims to address the growing numbers of HIV infection among the youth and at risk populations,”LoveYourself founder and executive director Ronivin G. Pagtakhan says. This non-medical setting will hopefully encourage the young ones to get tested.

In 2018, UNICEF reported that the Philippines still has the highest growing number of HIV cases with 32 cases recorded daily. And two out of three new cases in 2018 affect individuals from 15-24 age bracket, making them the most vulnerable. When left to its own devices, the Philippine National AIDS Council estimates that the 57,134 cases recorded from 1984 to 2018 may rise to 265,900 cases in the next decade. And the first step to combat this is through testing. And if you are afraid or anxious, LoveYourself Welcome hopes the relaxed atmosphere of their community center/coffee shop would help.

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Know your status in less than 10 minutes

At 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, LoveYourself Welcome is quite empty. Mark de Castro, LoveYourself volunteer and this branch’s community coordinator, says their space usually gets full on Tuesdays. And if ever there’s a long queue, anyone can grab free freshly brewed coffee—and maybe brewing lessons from Mark and other LoveYourself volunteers.

Since they open at 2 p.m., I get the first slot. Mark calls me by the special code assigned to me after filling up the necessary forms. He leads me to the empty second floor. Instead of conducting the consultation in a private room, the open space makes the test more relaxed and less terrifying. The ambiance, especially with windows that let in the afternoon sun, allows for a comfortable conversation.

Mark brings out an HIV test kit that resembles a pregnancy test kit. He asks for my non-dominant hand, pricks a finger, and takes four drops of blood. If you want to make it easier for your counselor, get a good night’s sleep as it would be hard to extract blood when you’re tired.

Then, Mark places the blood sample into the test kit and leaves it for about 20 minutes. While waiting for the result, since it’s my first time to get tested, Mark gives me a brief introduction on HIV.

What we should know about HIV

HIV, if you don’t know yet, is a form of virus that attacks the immune system. The virus may be transmitted to another individual through semen, blood, breast milk, rectal fluids, and vaginal fluids. That means one might acquire it from sex, blood, and possibly from birth and breastfeeding. While we’re at it, those are the only entry points of the virus.

What about rumored needles propped in dubious cinemas? This is unlikely to transmit the virus, unless the blood in the syringe is freshly extracted. What about blowjobs and cunnilingus? Yes, it’s still possible to get HIV through oral sex, especially in the presence of mouth sores. And what about saliva? The virus is not carried through saliva, so making out and sharing utensils with people living with HIV wouldn’t transfer the virus.

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There is still no cure for HIV. And when left untreated, it may eventually evolve into Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in two to ten years. But it’s definitely possible to control the virus through medication and antiretroviral therapy, which are both available at various LoveYourself centers. Despite the fact that people living with HIV would carry the virus all throughout their lives, it’s possible that it will become undetectable and “untransmittable” with proper treatment. Again, the first step to proper treatment is knowing your status through a test; it’s free at LoveYourself hubs anyway.

The above is not a complete account of what Mark is able to share with me about HIV in 20 minutes, but if ever you decide to get tested, you’d have a clear understanding of what HIV is and what it’s not.

So, what is it not?

The fear of knowing that one is living with HIV is one of the many reasons why some people prefer not to get tested. It’s the fear that HIV will stop them from living well. Yes, the virus is life-threatening. And to some extent, yes, the medication may have some side effects including dizziness for some time. And also yes, people living with HIV may not enjoy certain things. However, that doesn’t mean life ends once someone is diagnosed with HIV.

People with HIV have normal lives. There is nothing to be ashamed of. People living with HIV are, first and foremost, human beings. Yes, the virus lowers the count of their CD4 cells, which are responsible in strengthening the immune system. Yes, they are more vulnerable to infections and diseases. But nothing else changes. As Princess Diana once said, “HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hands and give them a hug. Heaven knows they need it.”

Building a community

After 20 minutes, Mark gives me the result and invites me back to the ground floor for coffee. He even urges me to stay at the hub to finish this story, like it’s a true coffee shop.

LoveYourself Welcome culls its name from its proximity to Welcome Rotonda, but more than anything, its name echoes the culture of community-building the hub fosters. LoveYourself also conducts open forums and discussions occasionally. It’s a safe space where people can talk about sexual health as it should be—without shame nor prejudice. Hopefully, we’d leave shyness, fear, and unawareness behind when we talk about HIV even outside spaces like LoveYourself. There’s nothing to fear or be shy about after all.

LoveYourself Welcome is located at 858 Blumentritt Road corner Remedios Street, Sampaloc, Manila. It’s open on Tuesdays to Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. with a cut-off time of 10 p.m. Contact them at 0967-2071976 for inquiries. 

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