St Albans HIV support centre The Crescent ‘kept me alive’ says sufferer

Rachel Dilley

Rachel Dilley - Credit: Archant

JUST like thousands of people Rachel Dilley thought it would never happen to her. HIV was something she knew little about and a condition she believed she was not at risk of contracting.

So she was left in a state of shock when she was diagnosed with the virus seven years ago at the age of 40 after suffering from a number of unexplained symptoms.

Rachel, who lives in Batford, Harpenden, had started dating again after her long-term relationship ended, and when she began to feel unwell she visited her doctor who referred her to a GUM (Genito-Urinary Medicine) clinic.

The mum-of-three explained: “I had been with a long-term partner for 20 years, we split up in 2004 and by about 2005 I started dating again and probably stupidly had two short relationships.

“I started getting ill, I felt really run-down and tired, I had mouth ulcers, a fever and swollen glands.

“At first I thought it was really bad flu but I couldn’t seem to get rid of it. I had no appetite, I couldn’t taste anything and I couldn’t smell.

“It was only when I started getting ulcers that my doctor said I think you need to go to the GUM clinic.

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“The doctor said ‘Would you like a HIV test?’ and I said ‘Yes, OK fine’ as it didn’t mean anything to me, I didn’t know anything about it, I wasn’t scared of it and it didn’t concern me at all.”

Two weeks later Rachel went to collect her results and received the news that would change her life forever. “I remember the woman saying the bad news is you are HIV positive and I was like ‘What? How? Me?’

“The first thing I said was ‘How long have I got? When am I going to die?’.”

In the weeks that followed Rachel experienced mixed emotions ranging from scared to tearful, until the moment came when she decided she was not going to let the illness beat her.

When she turned to The Crescent, a HIV support centre based in St Albans, her whole attitude on life changed and with their support she managed to pull herself out of spiralling depression.

“I was given some information and one of the places to go was The Crescent so I went there and sat down with someone, and just by talking to her and from her being open with me and telling me she was also HIV positive it gave me a sense of not giving up and I thought ‘This is not so bad, I can do this’.

“I am not being dramatic when I say it but I don’t think I would be here if it wasn’t for The Crescent.

“Seeing other people living their lives normally made me think, ‘I thought I was this thing with this disease but I am not I am a person, I am me’. They have given me courage and to be proud of who I am as a person. They are like my family.”

Since being diagnosed, the 47 year old, who is a trustee at the centre, has continued to seek comfort from the service, but has recently been devastated by the news it faces closure.

Last year it suffered a blow when it was denied the chance to apply for vital funding from Herts County Council and now it is struggling to survive solely on charitable donations.

While Rachel continues to help campaign to save The Crescent, for the last two months she has also played a part in raising awareness of HIV nationally.

Her portrait and moving story have been on display at a powerful exhibition in London called Stand Tall, Get Snapped to mark the 30th anniversary of the first man to die of AIDS in the UK.

Rachel admits she has always been open about being HIV-positive, despite on occasions experiencing the discrimination that still surrounds the virus.

“In the beginning I think my way of dealing with it was by going round and telling people to get their opinions. My sister said to me you really need to be careful who you tell because there are some nasty people out there and there are people who are not going to want to know you.

“I said well if they wanted to know me before and now they don’t because of this then they are not worth knowing.

“Some people said, ‘Why are you standing up like you are proud and showing off?’ but you don’t show off about something like this, I am trying to wake other people up and make people more aware of what they are doing.

“No one is safe as far as I am concerned unless you take the precautions, which I stupidly didn’t because I didn’t think and knew nothing about it.”

Rachel still does not know which partner she contracted HIV from as when she approached them they both said they had already been tested and denied being infected.

Through medication she is able to manage her condition and is living proof that HIV no longer carries the same death sentence it once did.

“I am more aware and grateful of the things I have got and appreciate life more. Obviously I can’t say I am glad I have got it but it has changed me and changed me for the better.”

For more information about The Crescent visit or call 01727 842532.