Our lunch meeting finished in much the same, casual way that it began: we pushed our chairs away from the table, made idle conversation, and gathered our cell phones and notepads. We prepared to walk back to the office, enjoying the beautiful Fort Lauderdale weather along the way. We’d accomplished our objectives during the meal, and we each had plenty of action items to keep us busy upon our return. All in all, it was, at first, an unremarkable day.
When the waiter tugs at my arm as I walk past him, my first thought is that perhaps I’ve left my credit card behind at our table. I love that card. Besides the fact that I just like the way it looks – with “AIDS Healthcare Foundation” emblazoned in silver against a sleek black background – it is the first company credit card I’ve ever had – which makes me feel extra grown-up. (With my personality, I can never be reminded too often to be a grown-up.)
Just as quickly as these thoughts race through my mind – and with a few subtle pats of my pants pockets – I realize that I hadn’t left my credit card or anything else at the table. His nervous eyes meet my curious stare.
“I hope you don’t mind my saying this,” he began, “but I saw your credit card. Do you work for AIDS Healthcare Foundation?”
“I do,” I proudly replied. “Our office is right around the corner.”
I catch a flicker of something else in the expression on his face: hope? Before it even registers, he lowers his head a bit, and in a hushed voice, continues: “I’m sorry if this is inappropriate, but do you have a help line, or some information you can give me to help me find a doctor?”
I glance at my colleagues, who at this point are waiting by the front door of the restaurant, staring at me inquisitively, and wave at them to go on without me. Still standing by our table, the waiter begins to share his story. As the lunch hour has already ebbed away, the young man has very few tables, and we are able to speak for several minutes without interruption.
He tells me how he came to Fort Lauderdale a few months ago to move in with his boyfriend. With sadness in his eyes, he tells me of their breakup shortly thereafter, and the HIV positive test result he got at a clinic after that. He’s only been working here for a month, and his insurance doesn’t kick in for another two. He’s scared. He’s ashamed. He feels alone.
“We’ve got you.” I tell him. His relief is palatable.
I love my job.
I explain to him that at AHF, our mission is to give the best possible care and support to anyone living with HIV, whether they can afford to pay for it or not. I tell him that we have healthcare centers, pharmacies, insurance programs, and even a disease management program that can help him stay healthy (with the guidance of a personal case manager who just happens to be a licensed nurse, as well). I mention that we can even provide him with transportation assistance if he doesn’t have the ability to get to our doctors on his own. Most importantly, I tell him that we can start helping him today.
I give him my card, and ask him to write his phone number on the back of my lunch receipt. I promise to have one of our linkage coordinators call him later that day, so that he would not have to spend another moment wondering what to do next, or worrying about what the virus could be doing to his body without any efforts being made to fight it. As I tuck his number into my wallet, I repeat the phrase I’ve already said to him … and to others before: “Remember: we’ve got you.”
He hugs me awkwardly, quickly. Pulling away he emits a shy laugh, and wipes away the tears that have started to form in his eyes. I do the same.
It’s hard for us, as human beings, to willingly hang on to information that makes us worry, scares us, or leaves us sad. There aren’t many who want to feel those feelings constantly. For that reason, I think that we – as a society – sometimes try to forget that HIV is still here.
HIV is still here. In Florida, and other parts of the world, it is all around us … and it’s spreading. We are in crisis.
Because of what I do for a living, I meet people like my waiter everywhere: the daughter of a Florida AIDS Walk sponsor; the best friend of a talent agent; the ex-husband of a manicurist … the list goes on.
However, also because of what I do for a living, I am surrounded by compassionate, generous and motivated people who give of themselves tirelessly to support events like the Florida AIDS Walk and Music Festival. I get to witness – every day – how much people care about fighting this disease, and the commitment to loving and caring for the people who live with it. It inspires me. It humbles me.
While HIV/AIDS is a global issue – and AHF leads in the fight against AIDS worldwide – I love the fact that every penny of the proceeds raised at the Florida AIDS Walk and Music Festival stay right here in Florida, to take care of our community … to take care of my waiter … to take care of my friends.
Every time I look into someone’s worried eyes and utter the phrase “We’ve got you,” I’m not just saying that AHF will take care of them. I’m saying that we all will.
I love my job.
Florida AIDS Walk and Music Festival takes place Sunday, March 24, at Fort Lauderdale Beach. Legendary diva Sheryl Lee Ralph is hosting the event, and the remarkable Chaka Khan is headlining the music festival. Please visit www.FloridaAIDSwalk.org to register and join us, or sponsor one of our amazing Walkers. I hope to see you all there!