Volume 76, Number 48 | April 25 - May1, 2007

A special Villager supplement

Hospitals, Health & Volunteers

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

In the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center’s third-floor oral health clinic, Dr. Calix Ramos, the clinic’s director, gave a patient a checkup.

At L.G.B.T. health center, patients feel respected

By Julie Shapiro 

When Jim went to the doctor, he used to worry about more than just his health. As a gay man, Jim faced discrimination from doctors at city clinics, he said.

That all changed in the mid-’90s, when Jim found the Community Health Project, now called Callen-Lorde Community Health Center.

“I don’t need to worry about being judged [at Callen-Lorde],” said Jim, who did not want his last name used. “I can be totally upfront and honest…. I don’t have to worry about a doctor thinking I’m disgusting and not wanting to touch me.” 

Jim, 47, is H.I.V.-positive and receives primary and dental care at Callen-Lorde. He appreciates the acceptance he has found there.

“It’s the atmosphere there — it’s a very nonjudgmental place,” Jim said. “You can sort of feel it when you walk in.”

Callen-Lorde, at 356 W. 18th St., serves all people regardless of their ability to pay. The center’s mission is to ensure that members of the L.G.B.T. (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community feel respected and involved in their healthcare, said Jay Laudato, Callen-Lorde’s executive director.

Callen-Lorde is booked to capacity with some of the city’s toughest patients, who often slip through the cracks of the traditional medical system: homeless teenagers, sex workers, crystal meth addicts and people without insurance. The center provides a range of services as diverse as its patients, from mental health to sexual health, and serves everyone from teens to seniors.

Callen-Lorde’s accepting environment is important, because even subtle discrimination is dangerous for patients, Laudato said.

“If you don’t feel comfortable, then you don’t tell [your doctor] everything, and then you’re not going to get good treatment,” Laudato said.

The most important service that Callen-Lorde provides is H.I.V. testing, according to Gal Mayer, the center’s medical director. About 5 percent of the tests come back positive, which is “very, very high,” said Mayer, a physician.

“We know that we are reaching people who are at high risk and who are more likely to be H.I.V.-positive and undiagnosed,” he said.

Of the more than 11,000 patients who visited Callen-Lorde in the last year, 17 percent are H.I.V.-positive, said Ed Galloway, the center’s director of development. This makes Callen-Lorde the largest non-hospital-based H.I.V. practice in New York State, he said. 

However, Callen-Lorde is not just about H.I.V.

“We’re very much a community health center for people who live and work in the neighborhood,” Mayer said. Callen-Lorde has the only dental clinic on the West Side south of 52nd St., and also offers specialized care for transgender individuals, including hormone therapy and counseling.

People travel a long way to receive Callen-Lorde’s uniquely targeted services, many from New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, but some from as far away as Georgia and Oklahoma. Callen-Lorde is the only facility of its kind in the tristate area, Mayer said.

“People come here for a safe space to talk about how their identity interacts with healthcare,” he said. 

For Jim, a cellist who lives in the Financial District, this service has proved invaluable. In 2001, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and was in “incredible pain,” he said. The night before his appointment with an oncologist at a hospital, he had an appointment with his doctor at Callen-Lorde.

“I couldn’t sit or stand upright without blinding pain in my head,” Jim said. “There was nothing my doctor at Callen-Lorde could do for me — I already had the diagnosis.”

Jim got choked up as he remembered what his doctor did next.

“I was lying on the exam table,” he said, “and my doctor put a hand on my shoulder. We just sat there very quietly and didn’t talk very much.”

A moment like that, Jim said, exemplifies exactly what the doctor-patient relationship should be.

“They’re very good at just listening,” Jim said. “Whenever I need a few extra minutes with my doctor, she’s not trying to push me out the door.”

Nothing exemplifies Callen-Lorde’s commitment to the underserved like Health Outreach To Teens, a program for at-risk adolescents. Many of the teens identify as L.G.B.T., and some are homeless, drug users or sex workers.

“These are very, very complex kids,” Galloway said. “They’re very skeptical, so it’s important to be nonjudgmental and welcoming, to build up a level of trust.”

Pop music plays in HOTT’s waiting room on Callen-Lorde’s second floor, and there’s a shower and clothing dispensary down the hall. Teens can come in to get cleaned up and have a nutritious snack, and there are free checkups and counseling sessions. All pharmaceuticals are free.

HOTT currently serves about 1,000 teens, 50 of whom are H.I.V.-positive, Galloway said. All the H.I.V.-positive teens were infected through sexual behavior.

To reach more people, HOTT also deploys a 34-foot-long medical van to the Christopher St. Pier, Tompkins Square Park and other places the teens are known to hang out. The van, staffed by Callen-Lorde’s medical professionals, has exam and counseling rooms, and dispenses health kits, information and support.

Laudato wants all patients to feel comfortable from the moment they walk into Callen-Lorde. Painted in navy blue above the main reception desk are quotations from Michael Callen and Audre Lorde, the center’s namesakes.

“We hope the messages right there in big print let people know that this is a place that respects them and belongs to them,” Laudato said.
Callen was a singer and entertainer who was diagnosed with H.I.V. and became a fierce advocate for the gay community. Lorde was poet laureate of New York State, and wrote “The Cancer Diaries,” a book about her experience with breast cancer as a lesbian woman of color.

“We must fix our hearts and minds on a clear image of the day when AIDS is no more,” Callen’s quotation reads. “Make no mistake about it; that day will come.”

Jim’s journey through Callen-Lorde has now come full circle, as he serves on Callen-Lorde’s Community Advisory Board, a group that communicates patient concerns to the staff. Currently, the board is working on an orientation package that all newly diagnosed H.I.V. patients will receive.

“The doctors are very empathetic,” Jim said in summary. “Callen-Lorde is a pretty great place.”

For more information on Callen-Lorde, visit callen-lorde.org.

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