County HIV patients find friends in their time of need

August 08, 1993|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

Living with AIDS is a challenge no one should face alone. That's why a Joppa-area couple has started a Buddy Program in Harford County to bring nurturing volunteers together with those who need their support most.

"There are people out there suffering needlessly because they are alone. And that shouldn't be," says Marti Grant, who with her husband, Gary, leads the fledgling group of Harford volunteers.

The Buddy Program is administered by the Health Education Resource Organization (HERO), a statewide AIDS advocacy organization based in Baltimore. Volunteers, who are assigned to regional groups in the metropolitan area, offer emotional and practical help in one-on-one relationships with individuals who have the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Whether it's helping with housekeeping, finding a new home for an evicted person or sharing a movie, says Mrs. Grant, buddies can greatly ease the challenges facing someone with a long-term, life-threatening illness.

HERO's Buddy Program existed briefly in Harford County in the mid-1980s, but over time the local leadership and priorities changed to meet other needs in the fight against AIDS. Now, the Grants hope to revive the program at a time when the need for support in the county is greater than ever.

The Harford County Health Department has a caseload of about 40 HIV-positive clients, ranging from recently diagnosed individuals who have no symptoms to patients with full-blown AIDS.

But Linda Stevens, the department's director of nursing, estimates that at least three times that many people in the county are infected with HIV, many of whom don't realize it.

"Until recently, people in Harford County tended to keep the disease in the closet," says Jeffrey Walstrum, director of volunteer services for HERO. As the stigma of HIV fades, he says, more people with the virus are coming forward, and that means more people are seeking support, which is not always available from friends and family.

HERO has trained more than 600 people in the Baltimore area since the Buddy Program began nine years ago, says Mr. Walstrum. About half are still active buddies today.

Buddies offer everything from companionship to assistance in filing health care forms. They prepare meals, shop for groceries or run errands. Or they might just be telephone companions.

Mrs. Grant visits her buddy, a Harford man who was diagnosed with HIV about two years ago, every three weeks. But others among the handful of volunteers in the county visit their friends more often. One woman, assigned to a homebound AIDS patient, visits every week.

"Sometimes it's just a social thing, like getting your buddy out of the house," Mrs. Grant says. "Some of these people don't even have one friend to call on."

Volunteer buddies are matched with individuals through HERO, which takes requests for assistance directly or through local health departments or home health care agencies.

A full-time nurse consultant, Mrs. Grant spends her days in the field, advising local health departments on implementing state programs in obstetrics and pediatrics. She says being a buddy on her own time provides a chance to do some hands-on nursing she has missed since taking on the job of consultant.

Mr. Grant, a nurse psychotherapist for a private hospital organization, is not a buddy but shares the role of group leader with his wife at the mandatory monthly meetings of Harford volunteers.

Their nursing backgrounds and knowledge of public health make them among the most vocal and persuasive AIDS advocates in the county.

"This is a conservative county," says Mrs. Grant, a Harford resident for 20 years. "People just don't want to believe AIDS is happening in a rural area. But there are people living with HIV and AIDS out here and they don't want to have to go to the city for every resource. Buddies can help them find assistance they need close to home."

Buddy training includes an initial 17-hour session with HERO in which volunteers discuss medical aspects of HIV, psychosocial issues, stress management and local resources.

After that, they join a local buddy support group, such as the Harford one that meets monthly in the Grants' home, for continuing education and moral support. In addition, HERO periodically holds daylong seminars on various aspects of living with HIV, from substance abuse to suicide prevention.

For more information on becoming a buddy, call the Grants at 679-0274 or HERO at 685-1180.

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