Gail Graham: The impact of a name

Gail Graham describes the impact that the name of a health centre can have on an individual’s likelihood of seeking treatment

On 29 April 1997 I was diagnosed HIV positive. My primary care doctor admitted he didn’t have much experience with treating the virus, so he referred me to the Moore Clinic at Johns Hopkins. At the time I worked directly across the street from the hospital at a well-known children’s hospital and did not want to go to a clinic that was known to treat only HIV/AIDS patients. From the very beginning of my diagnosis, I started feeling the effect of the stigma associated with the virus. If family and so called friends wanted me to eat on paper plates using plastic utensils, disinfected the bathroom right after I used it, and told me I was nasty and dirty, I hated to think what would happen if word got out at my place of employment.

Thankfully, I heard of an organization called HERO (Health Education Resource Organization) who assigned me a case manager. After hearing my concerns, an appointment was made for me at Chase Brexton Health System. While Chase Brexton clinic specializes in treating HIV/AIDS patients, it was also a broader reaching community health clinic and did not have the associated stigma of being an HIV clinic tied to its name. I loved it! At the clinic I felt comfortable and was treated like every other patient.

Fast forward twelve years later during my social security disability process, I lacked insurance coverage and started receiving services from the JACQUES Initiative. Originally, I was introduced to the JACQUES initiative to help establish churches for people of color as a safe haven for people to get tested. No one would ever guess that testing and counselling happens in the church, but it is also a no judgement zone. My church joined the initiative as a care centre. I was trained to become a certified HIV/AIDS tester and counsellor at the JACQUES Initiative and we were able to provide this service to our community every month.

With this background, I was extremely shocked and appalled when the church care centre merged with another centre and was renamed “The Center for Infectious Disease.” This name was on mail we received from the centre and was the first thing you heard when calling for an appointment. As I am also dealing with depression, you can imagine what it felt like to have this constant reminder when dealing with “normal” health issues. I feared the sign going up and that every time I visited people would know about my health. I am open about my status and I am an advocate, but I need it to be on my terms and in my time. Once the name change was made public (but no sign had gone up), I saw patients looking around before they entered. The atmosphere changed. Patients spoke up to staff, but it was out of their hands as well.

Recently I attended an HIV Planning Group meeting and bought this issue to the attention of the Commissioners. I was proud and humbled by their response. Unanimously the group voted to send a joint letter to the leadership to advocate for a change of the clinics’ name.  I am pleased to announce that my health system is now called the “THRIVE Program.” Instead of reminding us of our condition, it reminds us that we can and are continuing to thrive.

Gail Melissa Graham is an HIV/AIDS activist. Since her diagnosis in 1997, she has dedicated herself to the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Competing interests: None declared.