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Wednesday 08 October 2008

Rhys, a young Kiwi with HIV

Posted in: True Stories, HIV
By Matt Akersten - 1st December 2007

Rhys Jones
Rhys Jones, 24, has been HIV positive since October 2005. He's one of the lucky ones - support from his family and friends have got him through difficult times, and he's feeling well. Now he wants to use his experiences to help other young people living with the virus.

Rhys says he was in a brief relationship when he picked up HIV. "I've pin-pointed it down to the guy. I was always safe - except with this one," he admits.

"I wasn't having regular check ups at that time. When I came down with glandular fever, I thought I might as well get a full range of tests while I was at the doctor.

"My results came back on a Thursday, and I was actually in Wellington for that weekend, so the doctor had to wait until Tuesday until we were finally able to sit down and get it off her chest. She wouldn't say anything over the phone."

Did Rhys have any idea he might have been HIV positive? "Yeah," he responds. "I pretty much figured it out when she was calling me from work, from her home number and from her cellphone number too! It was really bothering her."

Rhys's dad was the first to hear the news. "I went to the doctor with my dad sitting in the car - and I told him as soon as I got into the car afterwards. And he was there through my first specialist appointment, and through the first appointment with the councillors.

"I got hold of all my family pretty quickly - it was scary telling them about it, but they've always been right behind me to back me up."

His friends have also been loyal and encouraging. "I had no trouble telling my friends, because I knew that the friends I did have would be there to support me," he says. "It scared the shit out of some of them, but I managed to talk it through."

What about the guy who unwittingly passed Rhys the virus? "I got in touch with him and told him after I was diagnosed… but whether or not he likes to admit and accept it or not is another issue," he says.

Now What?

Rhys has been disappointed by the support networks he's experiences since becoming HIV positive, and knows that other positive young people have had similar difficulties. "For people around my age that are getting diagnosed - there's no support that's based at young people. And there are quite a few out there.

"Because there's no support, and because it's a bit scary, no-one wants to talk about it. So they hide in their little depression bubble."

So now he's getting involved in a new support network called Now What? The organisation aims to take young HIV positive people through from the point of their diagnosis, through to the treatment they might need, to counselling, "and just to be with them and support them all the way through," explains Rhys.

"Because I'm a youth myself, I'm someone who can get out there and talk to people who are around my age. Other support networks are dealing with older guys well, but I know that younger guys can be put off a bit. Since we started putting out the information about Now What?, there have been quite a few young poz people sending us emails saying 'wow that's great'."

Rhys knows first-hand the importance of getting regular tests for HIV - and so when a friend of his reveals they're due for a test, "I just walk them straight down to the Burnett (testing) Centre. It's good when I take my friends in because they know that there's someone there if they do actually have it."

Karaoke Rhys
Upfront and high-profile

Rhys is optimistic and upbeat about his health. His immunity level is still very high, meaning he's still not on medication. "I go every six months to get that tested, and it's all been sitting basically at around the same point.

"I just have to stay healthy and not be absolutely stupid. I can't go on big weekend bingefests. I've got to look after myself."

Does has HIV status get in the way of finding love? Rhys is currently single, but has had a couple of short relationships recently. "It's not a problem telling them about it. If they want to get to know me, then it's all of me. And it's just another part of me."

Rhys understands that being so open about his HIV status is a rare thing - most positive young people wouldn't be quite as upfront. "I've been honest about it. Most of the people I've spoken to have been really good. It's fine. They realise that I'm still the person that I always was."

An article about him in the Sunday Star-Times and an interview with local gay TV show Kiwifruit raised his profile in the community - but Rhys has no regrets, and says he's only had warm feedback about his interviews. "People do recognise me now, it's funny. Not long after the Sunday Star-Times came out, I had someone walk up to me at Family, give me a big hug, and say: 'My Mum loves you!'"

Matt Akersten - 1st December 2007