Despite major medical advances in the treatment for HIV/AIDS—with regular daily medication, the virus can be rendered inactive and untransferable—there is still fear and discomfort surrounding contact with someone who has it. In fact, according to a survey conducted by Casey House, only 38% of Canadians said they would be willing to be touched by somebody with HIV because many still believe it can be transmitted that way. “So we said ‘Let’s challenge that stigma, because you can’t actually pass HIV from skin to skin’,” says Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House. That’s the intent of Healing House, a pop-up HIV+ spa that opens its doors for two days, on November 30th and December 1st, which is World AIDS Day.
Fifteen HIV+ Healers will be providing free services: a head, scalp, back and shoulder treatment, an express hand treatment, and mini-facials. “It’s really so that we can invite the public in and say ‘Are you willing to do this, are you nervous?,” says Simons of the conversations she hopes the event will incite. To prepare, the volunteers received training from the Toronto Blue Jays‘ own registered massage therapist, Melissa Doldron, and were shown how to do facials from local beauty brand Province Apothecary. They also learned how to blend the custom oil being used in the treatments—developed by Province founder Julie Clark—as a way to bring the HIV+ Healers in contact with making the product itself. “We taught them how to measure and pour the oil and they did all the labeling,” says Clark.
Though living with HIV/AIDS in 2018 is no longer the almost certain death sentence it was 30 years ago, it’s not without its continued social and emotional struggles. “A number of our Casey House clients say the stigma of the disease is more painful than the disease itself,” says Simons. Understandably, assembling the team of HIV+ Healers was no easy feat, and it includes a mix of Casey House clients as well as activists within the HIV community who are already open about their status. “It’s a big ask,” says Simons, as many living with the disease still keep their illness a secret for fear of being ostracized. But for these fifteen, it’s an important one worth answering.