Smashing the stigma: Casey House opens HIV-positive spa in Toronto

There will be 18 HIV-positive volunteers providing multiple services, including hand, neck, and shoulder massages. The goal is to promote skin-to-skin contact between the healers and participants to tackle the stigma around HIV.

Spa will be open Friday and Saturday at 128 Peter St.

Randy Davis is volunteering as a healer at Healing House. (Haweya Fadal/CBC)

When he went to the doctor to receive his test results, the last thing he expected to hear was: "You are HIV positive."

Randy Davis was diagnosed in February 2015, while living in Ottawa.

"My initial thoughts were that I would forever be single," he said. "That no one would ever want to touch me, let alone love me."

Davis recalled refraining from sharing his diagnosis with friends and family right away.

"The one thing that always tends to rear its ugly head is the stigma that comes with HIV," Davis says. "While the advancements have moved the science and treatment ahead, we still face the same stigmas that we did 30 years ago."

Now, Davis is an advocate for people living with HIV and will be volunteering as a healer at Healing House — an HIV-positive spa.

Healing House is run by Casey House, Canada's only standalone hospital for people with HIV/AIDS. It will take place Friday from 12:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. at 128 Peter St.

There will be 18 HIV-positive volunteers providing multiple services, including hand, neck, and shoulder massages. The goal is to promote skin-to-skin contact between the healers and participants to tackle the stigma around HIV.

"Events like this show what it means to be living with HIV, redefining that vision that's out there already." Davis says.

'Where I'm from, if people knew I was HIV-positive it would mean instant death for me.' - Antoney Baccas

Antoney Baccas learned he was HIV-positive in 1991, but didn't seek treatment out of fear of what people would think.

"I wasn't even able to go to the pharmacy to get my medication," Baccas recalls.

Originally from Jamaica, Baccas says he is no stranger to the stigma surrounding HIV.

"Where I'm from, if people knew I was HIV-positive, it would mean instant death for me," he says. "Being gay and being HIV-positive is a double whammy."

Antoney Baccas is also volunteering as a healer at Healing House in Toronto (Haweya Fadal/CBC)

Since coming to terms with his diagnosis, Baccas now works as an advocate for men living with HIV and AIDS. He says events like Healing House are necessary to change the way people think.

"I think it's important that we educate," he said. "I think it's important that we don't stay in a place of comfort, but to challenge the status."

'14% of people living with HIV do not know they are infected'

A new report supported by the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research finds that unlike its G7 counterparts, the number of new people being diagnosed with HIV in Canada is not decreasing.

In fact, it increased by nearly 10 per cent between 2014 and 2016, with an estimated 2,165 people being diagnosed.

The report, titled Ending the HIV Epidemic in Canada in Five Years, explores a number of steps Canada can take to significantly reduce the number of people being infected with HIV, including increasing testing, prevention methods, and eliminating the stigma surrounding HIV.

According to Sean Rourke, scientist at St. Michael's Centre for Urban Health Solutions and leading author of the report, approximately 14 per cent of people living with HIV do not know they are infected. He says the key to reaching those who are undiagnosed, is increasing testing options in Canada.

Sean Rourke is a scientist with the St. Michaels’s Centre for Urban Health Solutions. (Supplied)

"Imagine you can go to the drugstore and get a pregnancy test," Rourke said, "There should be an HIV test next to it."

In other G7 countries like the United Kingdom and the United States, testing options like point-of-care and at-home testing are more readily available compared to Canada.

"When you're undiagnosed, you can transmit," he said. "The key to that is having testing options that can reach these people and get them connected, diagnosed, and linked to treatment."

'HIV knows no bounds and it does not discriminate'

Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House, said Healing House is about teaching compassion through touch.

"We want Canadians to stop and think about their judgment around people with HIV, and recognize that we're all humans," she said. "Simply because they have HIV does not mean they should be treated any differently."

Last year, Casey House opened a pop-up restaurant for three days featuring HIV-positive chefs cooking food for customers. These events aim to increase awareness, and smash the stigma around the disease.

"We want Canadians to have conversations with their friends and family," Simons says. "We also want everybody to go and get tested. HIV knows no bounds and it does not discriminate."

Healing House, an HIV-positive spa, will open at 128 Peter St. in Toronto. (Haweya Fadal/CBC)

For Davis, his worst fears of never finding love quickly faded. Thirteen months after being diagnosed, he met the man who would eventually become his husband. They were married last year.

"I felt the sting of stigma," he said. "But because I've been open about my status, it was always more of an issue for me than it was for my husband."