Chris McFarlane Baxter
"I was diagnosed HIV+ in July 2017. After graduating I had gone to live in Spain, working as a teacher. I worked hard and played hard – not always responsibly. I returned to the UK in 2016 and had a short-lived relationship with a woman on my return"
Whilst we were together she got ill for a couple of weeks with intense flu-like symptoms. She went to see her doctor who dismissed it as nothing serious. But she insisted that it was further investigated, and she was eventually tested for HIV. The results came back positive and showed that she had only very recently been infected. It could only have been from me. So I was tested, and the results came back positive too. I had a viral load in the millions and a CD4 count of 7. They told me I had had it for a long time, possibly as long as 10 years and I was lucky to still be alive. I had to set up contact tracing so they could try and contact as many of my previous sexual partners as possible.
They put me on medication straight away. I took it very matter-of-factly. The social worker at the clinic was concerned but I was trying to pretend it wasn’t a thing even though I was continuously in and out of hospitals as I had barely any immune system left. I didn’t handle it very well, but that was all my part of my ignorance about HIV.
I was working in the steel industry at the time. It’s a very working-class environment, very alpha male. Not the kind of place you want to share your HIV status. But eventually, the whole thing got to me and I ended up off work for two weeks, drowning my sorrows in whiskey. The social worker set me up with counselling and I eventually decided to tell my boss about my HIV status. He was very supportive and shared the information on a need-to-know basis with the MD and the Health & Safety Director. They said that I should just mark the time out I needed for hospital appointments on my office calendar as ‘personal time’.
I was made redundant during the early part of the COVID pandemic and eventually started working for the Department of Trade and Industry late last year. As part of the recruitment process, I had to complete a medical questionnaire and one of the questions asked if I had any pre-existing medical conditions. I ticked ‘yes’ and filled in the box to say that I am HIV+, on medication and undetectable. The kicked off a HR process where I had to have a meeting with my boss. It was all part of the tick-box exercise. Again, she was supportive. She asked if any of my colleagues needed to know. I replied no, there is no need for them to know, but on the other hand, it’s no secret.
The other week I had to go for my COVID vaccine, and my secretary asked how come I was getting it so early as my age group wasn’t yet being vaccinated. I told her it’s because I’m HIV+. There was no reaction. And that’s the way it should be.