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Casey House Spa Targets Decades-Old Stigma With HIV+ ‘Healers’

"HIV is the infection, stigma is the disease."
Muluba Habanyama, one of the HIV+ healers, will provide massage services at Casey House's Healing House.
Muluba Habanyama, one of the HIV+ healers, will provide massage services at Casey House's Healing House.

For a long while after his HIV diagnosis in 2015, Randy Davis chose not to declare his status publicly. He was worried he'd be judged, isolated and defined solely by his illness — one that continues to be deeply misunderstood by many.

"I was single at the time," Davis, 52, recalled. "I thought I'd never find anyone who would want to touch me, much less someone to love."

Then, just a short while later, a nurse practitioner at an Ottawa hospital hugged him. It was a show of warmth that Davis desperately needed, and it moved him to tears.

Now, having abandoned a 20-year career in finance to work in gay men's health care and advocating for people living with HIV, Davis is set to volunteer as a "healer" in the world's first HIV-positive spa.

At the end of November, 15 people living with HIV will be available for "light touch" services including hand, neck and shoulder treatments and mini-facials, all free of charge.

The event is called Healing House and it's facilitated by Toronto's Casey House — Canada's only stand-alone hospital for people living with HIV/AIDS.

The healers will undergo training from Melissa Doldron, massage therapist for the Toronto Blue Jays, and custom-made oils will be provided by Toronto-based organic skincare line Province Apothecary.

Joanne Simons, CEO at Casey House, said the power of touch in physical and mental healing can't be overstated.

"One of our clients at Casey House comes specifically for massage because it's the only touch she experiences in her life," Simons said. "She has not disclosed her status to the public and she is not in a relationship. She simply wants the very normal experience of skin-to-skin contact that human beings need to feel normal, to feel connected."

Despite countless awareness campaigns, the stigma against those living with HIV continues to be pervasive. Only 38 per cent of Canadians are willing to share skin-to-skin contact with someone who is HIV-positive, according to a Casey House poll conducted by market research firm Leger.

HIV-positive activist Muluba Habanyama knows that hesitation intimately. She's been turned away by numerous massage therapists and dentists. Even a mentor insisted on serving her dinner on a disposable plate.

The 25-year-old's mission to dismantle that ignorance is what led her to volunteer for last year's June's Eatery, a Casey House event where members of the public could partake in a meal prepared by people with HIV.

The reaction to June's Eatery was overwhelmingly positive, Simons said. Still, she found herself plagued by uninformed messages on social media.

"Every single day there were thousands of vile comments," she said. "Misinformation, attacks. It was disheartening to read. I don't want our clients to further internalize that kind of abuse."

While appointments are available, Healing House offers the option for people to drop in for services. Habanyama said she's slightly nervous about who might show up and what they might say. She has already seen a handful of nasty comments on Twitter.

HIV is the infection, stigma is the disease.Randy Davis, healer

"It can be exhausting to explain everything all the time, to be responsible for other people's knowledge," she said. "I know so many other HIV-positive young people who choose not to be out there because it's not their job to fix you. And you really can't blame them for that."

"You have to hand it to the healers involved in an event like this to have the strength and the courage to put themselves out there."

Davis' courage partly comes from being proven wrong about his chances of finding love: thirteen months after his diagnosis, he met the man who would become his husband. Davis was upfront about his status, and his partner was "nothing but supportive."

They married this summer.

"HIV is the infection, stigma is the disease," Davis said. "It's the disease Healing House is trying to eradicate."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that 14 HIV+ healers will be taking part in the event. There will be 15.

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