Gail Graham has lived with HIV for over 22 years. After her diagnosis, Graham recalls encountering stigmas associated with the disease.
“Family and friends wanted me to eat on paper plates and disinfected the bathroom right after I used it,” recalled Graham. “People think you are dirty, nasty, look sick and nobody will want you.”
According to Graham, dealing with such stigmas, depression, and apprehension about others knowing her HIV-positive status, it didn’t help when a merger prompted her clinic to change its name.
“The clinic’s name was renamed ‘The Center for Infectious Diseases,’” recalled Graham. “I started seeing people looking around before they went in. I thought it was bad enough living with the disease and here this clinic was putting it out there. We didn’t need that constant reminder.”
Graham shared her concerns about the name change with C. Daniel Mullins, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Health Services Research (PHSR) at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. Dr. Mullins serves as Executive Director of The PATIENTS Program. A Patients Consultant with The PATIENTS Program, Graham recalled the advice she received from Dr. Mullins.
“He told me to speak up” recalled Graham. “That encouragement gave me the extra push I needed to say something.”
And she did.
“I attended a planning group meeting and brought it up there,” said Graham. “About six months later, I went to my doctor’s appointment, and the receptionist asked if I had heard the name of the clinic had been changed to ‘Thrive’. I was immediately in tears.”
The motivation Graham received from Dr. Mullins is among the many ways he and The PATIENTS Program have helped her to bring about change. She is a member of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church, pastored by the Rev. Dr. Franklin Lance. The church is among The PATIENT Program’s partners.
According to Graham, The PATIENTS Program sponsors Mt. Lebanon’s Annual World AIDS Day Testing for Turkeys, and it’s Back to School event.
“I am very grateful to Dr. Mullins and The Patients Program,” said Graham, who is a certified HIV tester and counselor. “Through the program, I am able to reach people, local, nationally and internationally. It’s all about educating the community about HIV and AIDS. He’s made it easier to share this information, and I am so appreciative. He and his staff are more than just doctors and sponsors. They are my friends.”
However, such a productive partnership took some ‘PATIENTS.’
“After finding out I was HIV-positive, and after going through the stigma with family and friends, I decided to learn as much as I could to help others,” said Graham. “As I was living with HIV, and learning, I joined Mt. Lebanon and spoke to Dr. Lance. He said ‘Gail, this is your ministry.’ Being in a community with a high rate of HIV and AIDS, I wanted to bring as many services to our community as possible. I was also protective of the community. Many organizations wanted to come into our community and not give back.”
She added, “Pastor Lance told me he wanted me to meet this group. However, when he said research, I thought to myself, ‘here we go again.’ However, he talked me into meeting the group and it was Dr. Mullins and The PATIENTS Program. Dr. Mullins asked if I was interested, and I said ‘no’, given all I had gone through. But he didn’t give up.”
Graham shared what changed her “no” to “yes.”
“The PATIENTS Program had a table at one of the church’s events. I figured I would put them on the side and watch them. I had taken my eyes off of them for a moment and I turned around and saw their members sitting at the table and holding hands and listening to people at the event. They had me.”
Dr. Mullins also recalled their early beginnings.
“Gail made it a point to say she had no interest in working with us,” said Dr. Mullins. “There is such an historical distrust of universities that we should expect people might be hesitant to work with us. However, once she saw we could help HIV patients live healthier lives, she became an ally. It took some time, but now she is one of our biggest fans. It’s a reminder to the research community that it takes time, but in the end it’s worth it.”
When she was first diagnosed, Graham had to take a “cocktail” of pills; now, she takes a single pill a day – and her viral load is undetectable. With the help of Dr. Mullins, she also published in The British Medical Journal,
“The PATIENTS Program has helped me with what I wanted to do, and that is educating people about HIV and AIDS,” said Graham. “ I am able to tell my story about how you can live a long and healthy life with HIV. The program has also allowed me to travel nationally, publish, and most of all educate. All of this came through my connection with The PATIENTS Program.”