Thomas Judd Care Center: ‘They count on us to be there, no matter what’
HIV/AIDS has disappeared from the headlines – but not from the region. People in northern Michigan infected with the virus are still in need of the care and support
they receive through the Thomas Judd Care Center in Traverse City.
The clinic was started in 1994 when local Infection Disease Specialist David Martin, MD, and Certified Nurse Specialist Mary Dillinger, RN, recognized that HIV care was vital to northern Michigan. They applied for state grant funds made available through the federal Ryan White Act.
When the clinic opened to serve people in northern Michigan diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, each new client was given a number, starting with number one. Number 56 was Lisa Shoemaker of Empire.
Lisa, perhaps the most famous HIV patient in America, was one of six people infected in 1988 by a Florida dentist during a root canal procedure. Lisa was thrust into the national spotlight. The most intimate details of her life were discussed on 20/20, Oprah, and 60 Minutes. She was dubbed “Patient E” by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), testified before the state legislature, and served on a Presidential HIV Council. During that time, the dentist and four of his six infected patients died of AIDS.
Lisa moved to Leelanau County expecting to die. She didn’t. Instead, a Petoskey physician referred her to the new Thomas Judd Care Center at Munson Medical Center. The center serves a 26-county region from Clare to the Mackinac Bridge.
“They should use this center as a model because it works – it helps people with HIV get through all the things they have to get through,” Lisa said. “The people here make you feel like you’re the only person coming in for an appointment. They cater to the individual and treat you like a human being. You know you have someone to lean on. You are not alone ever, and they never let you down.”
Today’s HIV clients have something they didn’t use to have: a future. “So much has changed from the time I was infected,” Lisa said. “Now people plan ahead – they didn’t used to do that. There is hope and help.”
HIV is now considered a chronic, manageable disease with appropriate treatment. People with HIV are now just as likely to face the same challenges of aging as other people do.
A Rising Caseload
HIV/AIDS deaths have declined steadily since 1995, yet the prevalence of HIV/AIDS increases every year. More people living longer with HIV increases the likelihood that the disease will be transmitted to others. An increase in referrals to the Thomas Judd Care Center has been seen in recent years.
The center serves about 150 people from throughout northern Michigan. The staff coordinates care and helps people navigate the health care system. Staff members oversee case management and mental health counseling, housing and other daily needs, prevention, and education. Munson Healthcare provides office space and other support.
Lisa, for instance, was not able to work because of thyroid disease – a result of taking numerous powerful medications in the HIV arsenal. “The drugs are helping us live, but they are also doing damage,” she said. At times, she’s resorted to collecting cans for grocery money. When she needed help filling out disability forms, she turned to the care center.
David Rinckey, (the center’s client number 20) is a former teacher and pheasant farmer in Benzie County. He relied heavily on his care team to help coordinate a liver transplant performed in Wisconsin. Liver failure, unrelated to HIV, nearly cost him his life. He has lived with HIV for more than 25 years. The Thomas Judd Care Center has helped him with medical transportation, dental care, and his mortgage. “I think they are wonderful – they’re doing a great service.”
Vision: HIV-Free in Michigan
The vision is to have the state of Michigan free from HIV. Because HIV transmission is tied to behavior, the key to stopping its spread is testing, awareness, and education. Munson collaborates with the Traverse Health Clinic to test high-risk individuals, including an annual free testing day each June. All pregnant women in Michigan are now tested for HIV and, with proper precautions, children can be born HIV-free. CDC guidelines are pushing for routine HIV tests for everyone, something Lisa supported when Congress considered it in 1991. The issue never got out of committee and has not been raised on the federal level since.
HIV/AIDS took a back seat once people stopped dying. Meanwhile, infected people are transmitting the disease and new infections are multiplying. You can be HIV positive for 10 years without symptoms while your immune system is being destroyed by the virus.
Thirty years after HIV/AIDS was first identified, each new diagnosis brings the same reaction: hysteria, fear, and shame. The staff at Thomas Judd Care Center responds immediately when called to help calm a newly diagnosed patient.
“People are still so afraid,” Lisa said. “The most important thing is to know your status. It can happen to anyone.”
Thirty years after the CDC’s first report on AIDS:
- 30 million people around the world have died of the disease
- 33.3 million more are living with HIV
- Worldwide, 7,000 people contract HIV daily