Stepping away from a celebration for a pioneering HIV clinic in the Mission, Javier Juarez quietly spoke of the struggles he encountered when he learned he was HIV positive while living in his native Mexico.
“All they told me was, ‘Here are your results, without preparing me,’” Juarez said. “The first thought that came into my head was, I’m going to die. Afterwards, there was a lot of pain and loneliness. It was something I had never thought about, and because of my lack of information, it was much more difficult.”
The center celebrated its 41st anniversary and the 20th anniversary of Clínica Esperanza on Thursday night with a gala featuring an art show by artists living with HIV. Juarez, who started making art in a therapy group, was one of the artists.
“At the clinic, they gave me a lot of medical and also psychological support, which is what I needed most at that time, coming from a Mexican family that is close-minded in certain ways,” he said. “It has opened a lot of doors for me. Thanks to them and the doctors I feel a lot better.”
The evening included a live auction to raise funds, a tribute to honor longtime HIV care providers, dance performances by Salsamania Dance Company and a Mexican drag queen with midriff-showing male backup dancers.
While HIV remains incurable and funding for treatment has been placed on the chopping block by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the mood at the event was festive. Several hundred guests, sharply dressed clinic workers and supporters danced, laughed and feasted on a lavish selection of tamales, tacos and hors d’oeuvres, all while sipping pisco sours and wine from an open bar.
The event was supported by a long list of donors. Reservations cost $125 per person.
Many of those who spoke throughout the evening said HIV treatment has come a long way in the last two decades.
“In the mid 90s people had to take maybe 30 or 40 pills three times a day,” said Virginia Scribner, who has worked at Clínica Esperanza since it started and is currently HIV Clinic Manager. “Now the treatments are down to about one pill a day that’s got three drugs in it.”
The change, she said, has made HIV easier to treat.
The clinic currently has about 450 patients and provides medications, treatments, psychological counseling, support groups and bilingual health education.
Many of those services were unavailable when the clinic first opened its doors in 1989, Scribner said.
“If we had a patient who had advanced stage AIDS we had to send them to San Francisco General to make that transition into hospice and eventually to death,” she said. “Now we are able to provide comprehensive care to HIV positive patients from the time of diagnosis to the time of hospice.”
Scribner said some HIV patients can now look forward to a life expectancy of 70 to 80 years with proper treatment. She said common health complications for middle-aged patients include diabetes and high blood pressure—issues also confronted by HIV negative people in the same age group.
City Supervisor David Campos, who attended the event, praised the achievements of the clinic, but warned that state budget cuts put advancements in danger.
“My fear is that some of the progress could be lost because of the issue of funding,” said Campos, who attended the gala. “It may be that at some point the city will have to step in and use some of its funding to fill in the gap for whatever the state is not doing. I don’t know that we have resources, but I think we’re going to have to make those choices.”
For his part, Juarez donated some of his artwork for auction and said he was anxious to give back.
“They have loved us and cared for us as people, and it’s a way of saying thank you to the clinic” he said. “I don’t have any other way of thanking them, just by doing this, which is from them and also for them.”