GA Voice - - Ge­or­gianews -

An­niver­saries can be bit­ter­sweet mo­ments for AIDS ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions like Pos­i­tive Im­pact Health Cen­ters. With the cel­e­bra­tion of their decades of ser­vice comes mem­o­ries of those lost to the virus, and the re­al­iza­tion that after 25 years their ser­vices are still needed, and will likely be needed for years to come.

On De­cem­ber 11, Pos­i­tive Im­pact Health Cen­ters will cel­e­brate its sil­ver an­niver­sary with a cel­e­bra­tion at The Cen­ter for Civil and Hu­man Rights. It will be a night to re­mem­ber the past while dis­cussing the fu­ture of an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides med­i­cal, men­tal health and test­ing ser­vices to thou­sands in the At­lanta metro area.

“We’re try­ing to get as many peo­ple who have sup­ported us over the past 25 years; past em­ploy­ees, vol­un­teers, donors, peo­ple who have used our ser­vices,” said Pos­i­tive Im­pact Health Cen­ters’ Olivia Chelko-Long, vice pres­i­dent of devel­op­ment and com­mu­ni­ca­tions. “It’s a time to get to­gether and share sto­ries and the fu­ture of Pos­i­tive Im­pact Health Cen­ters.”

The cur­rent or­ga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sents a 2013 merger be­tween two or­ga­ni­za­tions: Pos­i­tive Im­pact and AID Gwin­nett. AID Gwin­nett was pri­mar­ily a med­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion and Pos­i­tive Im­pact pro­vided men­tal health ser­vices.

“Both agen­cies were ex­perts in dif­fer­ent ar­eas, and we tried to make both ar­eas more con­sis­tent. So we brought med­i­cal care to the Mid­town of­fice and men­tal health to Du­luth,” Chelko-Long said.

To­gether, they pro­vide med­i­cal care to 1,000 in­di­vid­u­als with ap­prox­i­mately thirty new pa­tients a year, pro­vide free test­ing to 7,500 peo­ple, and see 6,000 vis­its a year to their men­tal health groups. But, in the early days of the epi­demic, both groups started out as re­source-bare, nascent or­ga­ni­za­tions try­ing to serve an un­fore­seen need.

‘I stopped go­ing to funer­als’

Jeff Ir­win is cur­rently the CLEAR Co­or­di­na­tor which fo­cuses on risk re­duc­tion for in­di­vid-

De­cem­ber 9, 2016

uals, but he started with AID Gwin­nett in 1990.

“I was just a coun­selor then, I was do­ing groups. That was a very part-time, grass­roots sort of thing.” Ir­win worked full time with the Grady HIV and AIDS pro­gram as a men­tal health coun­selor and started run­ning sup­port groups on Tues­day and Thurs­day nights.

“The group was ac­tu­ally started by Beth Raizes; she was a nurse and re­al­ized that they were see­ing a lot of men with AIDS and started do­ing sup­port groups, and it grew so big she couldn’t man­age it,” Ir­win said. “Back in those days it was very in­for­mal. The group would of­ten be men who had pro­gressed to AIDS…. It would of­ten be that friends, par­ents, peo­ple who had lost some­one to AIDS come in and sup­port the other peo­ple.”

Not only did an AIDS di­ag­no­sis mean fac­ing one’s mor­tal­ity, it also could also cost friends and fam­ily.

“There was a lot of fear, there was an in­cred­i­ble amount of stigma and fear. I re­mem­ber peo­ple throw­ing chil­dren out of the home,” Ir­win said. “What I re­mem­bered the most is these peo­ple who would throw their chil­dren out of the home, and then a year after that per­son died they would come back and be­come these in­cred­i­ble ad­vo­cates and car­ing for peo­ple with HIV.”

Life ex­pectancy in the early years of AIDS was of­ten mea­sured in months. The cur­rent cock­tail of drugs that have turned HIV into a chronic con­di­tion hadn’t been de­vel­oped, and first line treat­ment, azi­dothymi­dine (AZT), – icon­i­cally ref­er­enced in Jonathan Larson’s 1996 land­mark mu­si­cal “Rent” – was far from per­fect.

“We didn’t see peo­ple older than 30 years old. You might see 18, 19, 20-year-olds for a few months and then they’d be gone be­cause

Party With Im­pact

there was no med­i­ca­tion,” Ir­win said. “Even with AZT it didn’t help a lot of peo­ple and it was toxic, and we prob­a­bly hurt a lot of peo­ple with AZT.

“I stopped go­ing (to funer­als) be­cause it was be­com­ing over­whelm­ing. There would be months where there would be four or five funer­als.”

A life worth lov­ing

As medicine and med­i­cal treat­ments have changed lives, the length of life­times has changed. Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion, the av­er­age lifes­pan of some­one di­ag­nosed with HIV who ad­heres to med­i­ca­tion reg­i­men is 51 years, com­pared to just 32 years without med­i­ca­tion.

While Pos­i­tive Im­pact Health Cen­ters still fo­cuses on car­ing for those al­ready HIV-pos­i­tive, they also pro­vide test­ing with an em­pha­sis on early de­tec­tion and treat­ment. Their most public role is test­ing, and this year 857 of their 7,500 HIV tests came in Pied­mont Park dur­ing Pride in Oc­to­ber. If some­one’s test is pos­i­tive, it serves as an en­try point into Pos­i­tive Im­pact Health Cen­ters’ ser­vice net­work.

“After the sec­ond pos­i­tive test (of­ten on the same day) we im­me­di­ately link them with ser­vices,” Ir­win said. “We link with so­cial work­ers, sup­port staff and po­ten­tially with a pre­scrip­tion that same day.”

Ac­cord­ing to the CDC, nu­mer­ous stud­ies have shown that early in­ter­ven­tion ex­tends life and lim­its the po­ten­tial spread of the virus.

When it comes the fu­ture, Pos­i­tive Im­pact Health Cen­ters plans on grow­ing its ser­vices and reach­ing out to more peo­ple, but like most HIV or­ga­ni­za­tions they’d love to close their doors one day.

“We would love to go out of busi­ness, we would love for there to be a cure, for there to be a vac­cine,” Chelko-Long said. “We would love to not be needed right now.”

—Pos­i­tive Im­pact Health Cen­ters CLEAR Co­or­di­na­tor Jeff Ir­win on the early days of the AIDS cri­sis.

Mem­bers of Pos­i­tive Im­pact Health Cen­ters’ staff, in­clud­ing CLEAR Co­or­di­na­tor Jeff Ir­win (left, in blue). (Cour­tesy photo)

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