A 55 year-old grandmother of five finds out her late husband was bisexual and infected her with HIV. An Ethiopian woman is feeling suicidal and climbs to the top of an apartment building, ready to end her AIDS-ravaged life.
Their stories are at once unique and all too common for Sylvia Drew Ivie, who hears such tales each and every day as executive director of T.H.E. Clinic in Southwest Los Angeles. Daunted by the enormity of her task but unbowed in her commitment to make a difference, Sylvia listens, digests and makes sure that people like the 55 year-old grandmother and lost Ethiopian woman know that somebody is fighting for them, caring about them and helping them to get the services they need to improve their quality of life.
Operating since 1974, T.H.E. (To Help Everyone) Clinic is the only non-profit community health care clinic serving Southwest LA, which is populated mostly by African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Pacific Islanders.
Thousands turn to T.H.E. Clinic each year for a full range of medical care, health education, and screening services. A staff of approximately 100 serves patients in ten languages and offers a wide range of primary care for men, women, and children: family planning; same-day appointments for urgent care; pediatrics; diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases; anonymous and confidential HIV testing, counseling, and treatment for men and women; blood pressure monitoring; cancer screenings; preventive care and patient education; and care for chronic conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. Unlike so many others in the field, T.H.E. Clinic never turns anyone away based upon ability to pay. And because AIDS is so prevalent in the minority communities surrounding their two locations, many of the T.H.E. Clinic’s resources are mobilized against the epidemic.
“We’re under siege,” said Drew-Ivie. “We have come to consciousness late. We’re still trying to identify the problem, find out whom it’s impacting and meet the challenge. We still have to own it in the heterosexual community, the fact that women have it, that teens are getting it.”
She estimates that 80% of people who come in for AIDS-related services are women, and of those, 60% are African American.
“Most have been infected by their male partners and only find out they they’re partners are at risk by [the women] being tested, not by being told by their partners.”
Drew says that most women react with shame after finding out they’re HIV positive, which only compounds the uphill battle. At that point, her goal and the goal of T.H.E. Clinic is to get rid of that shame by looking at HIV/AIDS as a chronic health condition and by providing services that empower the women in need.
“Let’s grapple with this health condition,” is her message to them. “We become friends with our patients. We work together on their health. They become part of our family and feel good about it. The shame diminishes as they stay in care and take charge of their health.”
Prior to her work at T.H.E. Clinic, Drew-Ivie practiced poverty and civil rights law with the National Health Law Program in Los Angeles, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, and the US Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C. Over the years, she has continued to work on health policy analysis and reform through participation with the Kaiser Family Foundation Commission on the Future of Medicaid and the Uninsured (1991 to present), President Clinton’s Advisory Commission on Consumer Protection and Quality in the Health Care Industry (1997), the Institute of Medicine’s Studies of Unintended Pregnancy (1998), the Institute of Medicine’s Quality of Care Oversight in Federally Financed Programs (2001-2002), and the California African American Summit on HIV/AIDS Steering Committee. She was recently appointed to a Centers for Disease Control Blue Ribbon Panel on evaluating efforts to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in health care.
When asked about her workload at T.H.E. Clinic, Sylvia laughs: “I live here.” But she is quick to add: “I just love it. It’s exciting, rewarding, challenging, maddening … a great opportunity to work with the community. Inch by inch, we’re moving forward, making more progress than losing ground.”
She’s also quick to point out the way her patients re-energize her. The 55 year-old grandmother of five who found out her late husband infected her with HIV became gravely ill and lost most of her memory, but fought for her life and “came all the way back.” The suicidal Ethiopian woman came down from the apartment building ledge when she saw a stray dog she often cared for. As Sylvia relates, the woman realized: “I can’t jump. That dog needs me.” Eventually the woman did die of AIDS, but not before becoming an important leader of the women patients at T.H.E. clinic, which honored her memory by placing images of her and her dog on a mural.
Stories like that keep Sylvia and T.H.E. Clinic going.
“We have to stay on task. This is our problem and we’re going to solve it because it’s ours. I really believe it.”