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Toronto pop-up spa staffed exclusively by HIV-positive ‘healers’

By Elizabeth Kuhr

Toronto’s Healing House is thought to be the world’s first spa staffed exclusively by HIV-positive therapists, or “healers.” To mark World AIDS Day, Casey House, a hospital that provides care for patients with HIV, launched the pop-up spa, which will offer free massages and facials by HIV-positive people for two days.

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

“This stigma affects peoples’ lives on a daily basis,” said Xica Dadiva, a Healing House healer. “If I want anything to change for me, I have to be involved.”

“The virus has become highly manageable. It’s the stigma that’s really the disease.”

The project set out with a big goal: to challenge people to push their beliefs and perceptions about HIV-positive individuals. The spa is in a 7,000-square-foot rented space in downtown Toronto. The walls share messages of acceptance in bold text, such as “These hands heal. And they’re HIV+” and “Relax your fear.”

“What our HIV-positive patients really miss is touch, because people are afraid of transmission,” Joanne Simons, the CEO of Casey House, told NBC News. “Its a lack of education and fear. The human connection is missing.”

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

The 18 HIV-positive “healers,” as the Healing House calls them, are not therapists by trade. So the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team’s massage therapist and local beauty brand Provence Apothecary trained the group. All 164 appointments for mini facials and neck, head and hand massages are free.

“We are pushing the boundaries to create discussion, and this topic makes people uncomfortable,” Simons said. “We want people to get the facts, feel the emotion and challenge their thinking.”

When the crisis first impacted Americans, people inaccurately believed that HIV could be transmitted through touch and refused to make skin-to-skin contact with HIV-positive people. To this day, that fear persists: Simons said some HIV-positive patients receiving massage therapy at the hospital report it’s the only time they are touched by someone.

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