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Doug Harris

Yolanda Fleming

Trinitas fights the stigma and meets the disease head-on

As the global community observes World AIDS Day, much of the attention that surrounds the disease and the HIV virus that causes it will focus on prevention, management, and education. The HIV program at Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth, NJ provides these services and more for the population infected with, and affected by, HIV and AIDS throughout Union county.

"Last year there were nearly 3,000 people living with HIV or AIDS in Union County," says Judith Lacinak, Director of HIV Services at Trinitas. "And from anywhere in the county, they can come to us for help."

For 20 years the Trinitas HIV program has been a center of hope for members of the community living with the virus. Without a lot of fanfare, or the publicity that comes with breakthroughs in cancer treatments or heart disease, for example, the program has provided care to thousands of HIV-positive patients – and helped them learn to care for themselves.

The clinic provides mental health assessments, linkage to proper care, and permanency planning. Counseling is made available for managing family issues and, if needed, substance abuse treatment. If a patient stops coming in for their scheduled appointments, a substance abuse counselor gets out into the community to find them, and the staff doesn’t hesitate to involve the police and paramedics if they sense something is wrong. It’s all part of the HIV clinic's larger role as a presence in the community, not just a department in the hospital.

"We can meet the demand," Lacinak says. "But the demand doesn’t always present itself."

Finding those who need help can be one of the most challenging aspects of running an HIV program, but it's one the Trinitas team is meeting head-on. A combination of obstacles – the stigma of admitting to having HIV, an increasingly complicated insurance field, lack of familial support, and in some cases the problem of substance abuse – keeps many with HIV from getting treated for the disease.

For patients like Shawn Sullivan of Elizabeth, the HIV clinic at Trinitas has been a center of hope and a place to be with her second family, "my HIV family," she says. Sullivan has lived with HIV for almost 20 years, and she knows firsthand how valuable programs like Trinitas' are to the community they serve. "I wouldn't be in the position I'm in now if it wasn’t for the clinic,” she says. "People need programs like this – if they didn’t have this center, they'd have nothing. Communities need these kinds of services."

At a time when HIV no longer viewed in the medical community as a terminal illness, but as a chronic disease such as hypertension or diabetes, Dr. Julius Salamera of the Infection Disease Division says education is a key to helping people manage their condition. The clinic makes education a major part of each patient's treatment, and offers speaker-led events and literature in conjunction with pharmaceutical companies. "In 2015, people are living as long as 30 years or more with HIV," Dr. Salamera says. "And the public at large needs to be educated about this. We also need patients to understand that if you're on your medication, you’re under control."

Today more than 80% of patients at the Trinitas clinic are considered non-detectable; that is, they show few to no outward signs of having HIV. The Trinitas program is helping them keep their health under control and preventing their HIV from becoming full-blown AIDS. When the community needs support and a partner in the fight against HIV, the clinic is there for those affected by the virus. For Shawn Sullivan, and thousands of others throughout the last two decades, it has been a lifeline. For a patient group still stigmatized by a three-letter diagnosis, it's a haven. And it’s another example of how Trinitas Regional Medical Center is going above and beyond for the community at large.

Lacinak notes it's important to remind the public that having HIV isn't something to be ashamed of. "Get tested," she says. "Know your status. Know your partner's status. HIV doesn’t discriminate based on age, race, gender, or sexual orientation."

The right combination of meds and therapy means the outlook for people living with the virus has greatly improved since AIDS first came into the public consciousness more than 30 years ago. Shawn Sullivan is an example of how the evolution of HIV treatment, and the emergence of programs like Trinitas', have altered the landscape. Still, Lacinak says, the public needs to remain vigilant. "We are all one bad decision away from HIV," she says.

On World AIDS Day 2015, with more than 34 million people around the world estimated to be living with HIV, community programs like the HIV Clinic at Trinitas are playing a key role in keeping the populations they serve healthy and their viruses under control. These facilities are going above and beyond to do their part in combating a worldwide epidemic. To contact the Trinitas Early Intervention Program call Mb>908-994-7600.


About Trinitas Regional Medical Center
Trinitas Regional Medical Center (TRMC), a major center for comprehensive health services for those who live and work in Central New Jersey, is a Catholic teaching medical center sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth in partnership with Elizabethtown Healthcare Foundation. With 10 Centers of Excellence across the continuum of care, Trinitas has distinguished itself in cardiology, cancer care, behavioral health, renal care, nursing education, diabetes management, wound healing and sleep medicine.

Posted: December 1, 2015

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