A person-centred model of care, developed in the early days of the HIV epidemic when there were no effective treatments for HIV, led to relatively close relationships between carers and people living with HIV (PLWH). Our study examines the experiences of carers using a relational framework, exploring the traumas and challenges involved, coping practices instigated by carers and the emergence of ‘relational traumatic growth’ opportunities.
Twenty-two UK healthcare workers and charity volunteers working with PLWH from the early years of the epidemic were recruited. Semistructured interviews were used to elicit participants' own stories of working with PLWH, from their initial involvement to the present time, and their reflections on the personal impact of working in the field of HIV. Data were analysed using a thematic approach employing relational categories.
The impact of care was related to the formation of close relationships, identification with PLWH, high numbers of deaths and the difficulties and challenges encountered relationally. Participants described attempts to cope through informal and formal support, as well as endeavours to manage professional boundaries. Various ways of making sense of experiences were described, ranging from denial to abandoning the HIV field, to intense commitment. For some, traumatic experiences lead to validation, a search for personal meaning and managing the sense of loss with an exploration of further ventures, contributing to the achievement of relational traumatic growth.
The intensity of relationships in HIV work, developed through the emotional and practical work of caring for PLWH, led healthcare workers and volunteers to experience a range of psychological consequences, both negative (including distress and emotional exhaustion) and also positive (such as acquiring a sense of purpose).
Patient or Public Contribution
People living with HIV and those working with them were involved in the initial study conceptualization and design. The second and fourth authors of this paper were professionals working in HIV throughout the pandemic and have led on all aspects of the study. People living with HIV and those working with them additionally guided participant selection by suggesting participants and supporting recruitment. Narrative transcripts were checked and amended (if necessary) by participants. Initial findings were presented at the AIDS impact conference, where PLWH and those working with them attended and feedback on important ideas that helped to prioritize and shape the study findings.