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World-Class AIDS Care at Ponce de Leon Center

Midtown center offers comprehensive care for the devastating disease, which was first reported 30 years ago.

They come from every community. 

They are black. They are white. They are Hispanic. They are men. They are women. They are gay, and they are straight.

The number of people with HIV/AIDS is slowly increasing in the Southeast.

Treatment has come a long way since the immune deficiency disease was first reported by the CDC  30 years ago (read the article). But the battle presses on. 

Helping in the fight is the  in Midtown, which serves 5,000 patients each year. Almost all (99%) have HIV/AIDS. Many patients are mentally ill or low income. 

“We were asked years ago to care for the 'sickest of the sickest' because we have the most comprehensive services and experienced provider population,” Dr. Wendy Armstrong, an infectious disease doctor and professor at the center, said.

Recognized for excellence

The Ponce de Leon Center, founded in 1986, is operated by Grady Health System and staffed by Emory’s Division of Infectious Diseases. In 2002, the program was one of only three in the country named "outstanding" by the University HealthSystem Consortium in a national study.

The center boasts:

  • Groundbreaking clinical studies of new drugs for the treatment of infection.
  • National recognition for work in the mechanisms of bone loss in patients with HIV/AIDS.
  • Studies of barriers to care and patient retention in hard to reach populations.

They have many accomplishments, but what really stands out are the treatment options. 

“We try to provide comprehensive care,” Armstrong said. “We are not just a medical clinic.

The center's approach, she said, is  "to get folks successfully into care, and it translates to a better outcome for individual patients, and better outcomes in Atlanta.”

The center offers everything from HIV/AIDS care specialists to child care for patients. 

“This has now become a very hot topic,” Armstrong said. “Our model is known worldwide and is helping educate national and international communities.”

HIV/AIDS patients are patients for life. Typically, they visit the center every three months. But some stop by every day. The center makes treatment more manageable by offering all the services in one place.

Paying for the center

Federal dollars pay for the center. And, with half of the patients being uninsured and most making less than $10,000 per year, the center always needs more money.

Jacque Muther, the center's HIV policy, contracts and resource manager, said most of the funds come from the Ryan White Care Act. It gives money to areas with large populations of HIV/AIDS patients who are under- or uninsured. Atlanta receives the most money in the county from this program.

Perhaps an unlikely hero for HIV/AIDS funding are pharmaceutical companies, which recently began giving away medications for free.

“If it wasn’t for [the help from pharmaceutical companies] right now we’d be in worse shape than Sub-Saharan Africa,” Armstrong said.

The faces of this disease

Many days if you visit the Ponce de Leon Center, you might see a young guy in a wheelchair hanging in the hallways. His hands don’t work. His feet don’t work. But Muther describes him as the happiest guy you’ll ever meet.

“Every time I see him he says, ‘Good morning, how are you?’ and I say, ‘How are you doing?’ and then he spits out his 'viral load.'”

Viral load is a measure of the severity of a viral infection such as HIV/AIDS. Most people don’t like to share this type of personal information, especially out loud.

"I’m sure he’s not always happy, but he puts on a good face," Muther said. "When I walk away, I think ... I don’t have anything to complain about.”

Dennis is another patient that sticks out in her mind. She recalls when she was with him in Washington, D.C., when he was 16. During their stay, they talked with U.S. Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis. 

As they sat down, Lewis said, “Now, Dennis, I want to talk to you. Tell me about your medications. Do they make you sick? Are they hard to take?”

“I don’t take them,” the boy said.

The two exited to a nearby balcony for a while. When they came back, Dennis seemed to be floating on air.

Later, he told her that Lewis made him promise to start taking his meds and had said, “I’ve been through some pretty rough things in my life but nothing like what you’ve been through.”

This conversation inspired Dennis to listen to his doctors. He pressed on for three years after that meeting before dying.

“In the end, your patients always teach you more about life than you already know,” Armstrong said.

AIDS in Atlanta

While HIV/AIDS no longer means a death sentence, the fight is not over.

Studies have shown that the more people receiving care in an area, the fewer will contract the disease. 

“It’s so important to keep this disease in young people’s minds,” Armstrong said. “There is a group of us that grew up when this was on the news every night, but it’s not anymore. It’s important to keep that message out there.”

While treatment does exist, the side effects can be severe. Plus, the costs and the doctor visits never stop.

Armstrong also said, “What I see here [in Atlanta,] looks just like what I saw in Boston in 1994 [the year medications arrived]. It looks just like what my colleague sees when he goes to South Africa. What he sees is the same devastation that we see in Atlanta and Grady.”

HIV Task Force starts up

In August 2011, local specialists and the national organization HealthHIV plan to hold an event to encourage metro political leaders to address the issue of HIV and AIDS.

“The idea is to get them to talk about it, to get them to be tested publicly if they’re willing to do that,” Muther said. “And to start the dialogue about making it a priority of their various administrations. It isn’t for anybody locally right now.”

What everyone in the community needs to realize is that AIDS remains a problem today. That Atlanta is in the middle of this fight. We lose when we don’t talk about it.

Just like that homeless man under the bridge -- if you open your eyes, he’s still there. Maybe he has a blanket now, but he continues to suffer. 

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