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Toronto pop-up spa, made up exclusively of HIV-positive "healers"



By Elizabeth Kuhr

The Toronto Health Center is considered the first spa in the world to be exclusively staffed by HIV-positive therapists or "healers." On the occasion of World AIDS Day, Casey House, a hospital that cares for patients with HIV infection, has launched the Pop-Up Spa, which offers free massages and facials for HIV-positive people for two days.

The goal? To combat the discrimination and stigma faced by 37 million people worldwide with HIV.

"This stigma affects people's lives every day," said healer Xica Dadiva. "If I want something to change for me, I have to be involved."

"The virus is very good to manage, it's the stigma that really is the disease."

The project had one major goal: to encourage people to promote their beliefs and perceptions about HIV-positive people. The spa is located in a 7,000 square meter, rented area in downtown Toronto. The walls share acceptance messages in bold text, such as "These hands heal, and they are HIV +" and "Relax your anxiety."

"What our HIV-positive patients really miss is touch because people are scared," said Joanne Simons, CEO of Casey House, to NBC News. "It's a lack of enlightenment and fear. The connection between people is missing."

A healer giving a hand massage to award-winning singer Keshia Chanté at the Healing House pop-up store in downtown Toronto. Sarjoun Faour

The 18 HIV-positive "healers", as the Healing House calls them, are not therapists. So the therapists of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team and the local cosmetics brand Provence Apothecary trained the group. All 164 Mini Facial and Neck, Head and Hand Massage appointments are free.

"We are pushing boundaries to create debate, and this issue makes people uncomfortable," Simons said. "We want people to know the facts, feel the emotions and question their thinking."

When the crisis hit Americans for the first time, people vaguely believed that HIV could be transmitted by touch, and refused to accept skin-to-skin contact with HIV-positive people. To this day, the fear remains: Simons said some HIV-positive patients receiving massage therapy at the hospital say it was the only time they were touched by anyone.


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