Thursday, March 17, 2011
First a Scare, Then Some Compassionate Help--STAR column
Recently I had the opportunity to re-watch Jonathan Demme’s movie Philadelphia with Tom Hanks playing corporate lawyer Andrew Beckett who is fired from a big law firm because he has HIV-AIDS.
What struck me most about the film was the accuracy of what life was like for Philadelphians with HIV in the 1980s and early 90s. In the early 1980s, when the first cases of AIDS were reported by The New York Times, the medical community could not explain how AID was contracted. At that time people were afraid to kiss or hug one another. The situation was so bad some thought that you could catch HIV from shaking hands or sharing drinking glasses. Others thought that mosquitoes could carry the virus from one person to another.
As I listened to the movie’s theme song, “The Streets of Philadelphia,” (as sung by Bruce Springsteen) while taking in the film’s montage of city street life, I got to thinking about my walk up Lehigh Avenue a couple weeks ago. During my own gritty “montage” walk I passed panhandlers, shopkeepers with wares on the sidewalk, prostitutes under the El, and addicts looking to score.
Unlike Hanks’ character, I don’t have HIV- AIDS, but I did have a problem.
The day before, while helping a friend clean out bags of trash in an alleyway beside his house, I felt something prick my index finger. It took a second to realize what had happened: I had picked up a plastic bag containing an uncapped, used syringe. The stages of panic that then ensued—the blood draining from my head, the accelerated heart rate, and a feeling that my life could be about to change—were very pronounced indeed.
I ran inside my friend’s house, inserted my finger under warm tap water and kept it there for a long time while squeezing the small wound until the bleeding stopped. Then, as an extra measure, I applied massive doses of iodine. For years I’d read about hospital personnel getting pricked with dirty syringes, and in some of these stories the outcome was not good.
I was good and scared, and I had a right to be.
After a round of phone calls—during which a number of city public health officials expressed their sympathy and concern, a sentiment that instead of relaxing me only made me feel more fearful. It was as if they were saying, “How tragic. I hope you come out of this okay.” While they were only trying to be helpful, I took their comments to mean that I was dealing with a problem more serious than I knew.
It was strongly recommended that I get tested for both Hepatitis C and HIV. Because I don’t have health insurance, I was put in touch with Prevention Point at 166 W. Lehigh Avenue. Like most people, I’d always assumed that what Prevention Point did was distribute syringes to addicts in order to curb the spread of HIV.
Prevention Point was considered controversial when it was initiated in 1991 by then Mayor Edward Rendell. Some saw it as a “give-away” for addicts, a sort of pass to indulge their habit. But with AIDS sweeping the nation in the early Nineties, the Rendell administration saw an organized syringe exchange as an absolute necessity.
My first time look into the basement office of Prevention Point was an eye opener. Minutes after I walked in the door I was introduced to am counselor who then took me into a side room where I was given a blood test. The process was faster than any hospital emergency room, and the personnel much nicer, I was amazed at the organizational skills and the care that I observed.
. Yesterday I went back for my test results, and I was told that I was negative, although it was suggested that I undergo another test in a couple months. When I asked the counselor what would have happened if I had tested positive, she said that she would have made doctors appointments for me and saw that I received the correct care. In other words, I wouldn’t be sent away with a mere, “good-bye and good luck.”
Since its founding in 1991, Prevention Point has grown into a multi-health facility where one can get physical exams, Hepatitis A & B vaccinations, intense harm reduction counseling, and legal and medical referrals. And I have probably just touched the tip of the iceberg.
Thank you, Prevention Point!
Now I think I’m going to go back to my computer to listen to Springsteen’s Philadelphia.