Credit: Lisa Predko

Hoffer, 46, is the patient care coordinator at South Suburban HIV/AIDS Regional Clinics.

I’m a patient-care coordinator—basically assistant director—for South Suburban HIV/AIDS Regional Clinics, SSHARC for short, which is unfortunate. It’s like a band of gypsies—we service four different clinics, one clinic a day (Thursday is a nonclinic day). People are traveling to each clinic with big backpacks and suitcases of stuff. They plunk down in any space they can find.

Apparently HIV and AIDS were growing rampantly in the south suburbs. There’s still a huge stigma—you know, there’s no public place where you can go [for treatment] and not be embarrassed. It’s a double-edged sword when it comes to communication. You want people to know our services exist. But we can’t make our logo memorable, so to speak, because then people will see it and go, “Oh, that’s the HIV/AIDS place. Did you go there?”

When you’re at the clinic, sometimes the patients look so lost—lost in thought—and they’re usually alone. So I brought flowers one day, a bunch of them. And this little old dude was sitting there; he was so cute. I said, “You need a flower.” And I grabbed the biggest flower I could find and jammed it in his lapel. He just had the biggest grin. I said, “Look at you and your flower.” And he said, “It looks nice, doesn’t it?” Who doesn’t like flowers?

Sometimes people don’t want to be tested. We’ve tried to have testing events—which I wouldn’t come to either—with these big flyers. “Hey, we’re having a really superfestive testing event for HIV. Come out and see if you’ve got a terminal disease!”

Actually, it’s not terminal. It’s a controllable disease. It’s to be viewed these days the same as diabetes, ’cause if you don’t manage your diabetes properly, you can die as well. But people aren’t really dying of AIDS these days. They’re just having complications. There’s even a program called ADAP, AIDS Drug Assistance Program, where HIV patients can have their medication paid for.

We have a pharmacist who specifically monitors how the combinations are working to find the best. The outdated term is “cocktail.” It was a media-created term, and it makes it sound like it’s no big deal. People are like, “Oh, hey, if I get it I can just take a pill and I’ll be right as rain.” And you’re not.

Some of our clients are poor and less educated, and they have other issues on top of their diagnosis. Some might be homeless. Their phone numbers change from week to week; their living conditions change every five minutes. So we have case managers to help ’em with things like that. We provide transportation to their appointments.

I remember having a conversation with a client. We were talking about preventive measures, and he said, “Nobody uses condoms, and if anybody tells you they do, they’re lying. You just don’t know enough about the gay community.” And I was like, “Aren’t you worried?” And he was like, “No. We’ll just see what happens.”

I don’t know where to go with that one, ’cause it’s really not my job. It’s not my job to counsel. I just happened to be sitting in with that patient.

[I live in] Elmhurst. Seventy-two miles round trip. I call it Mayberry. See a cop car go by, I’m like, cat stuck in tree. See a fire engine, two cats stuck in tree. Nothing ever happens. It’s a place I love to complain about. My kids can be outside all day, and the most I have to worry about is that they’ll come back covered in mud. But I’ve still got that city eye on them. Elmhurst is 4 percent black—they’re counting me twice or something. —As told to Kate Schmidt