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Evergreen Nurse Practitioner Shirley Swenson Has Something to Tell You About HIV

January 8, 2019

To meet the medical needs of the Southern Tier, Evergreen Health opened a new location for HIV and hepatitis C care, STI testing and PrEP services at 320 Prather Avenue in Jamestown. In our inaugural installment of the series we’re calling Team Evergreen, we talk to Shirley Swenson, a Nurse Practitioner at the new Jamestown location, about what makes the Southern Tier facility so special and how her background in music contributes to the care and compassion she brings to her work.

Congratulations on the opening of the new Jamestown location! Can you tell us a little bit about the services there?
Sure! In Jamestown, we specialize in treating HIV and hepatitis C and HIV prevention, which means if somebody is in a relationship where one individual has HIV and the other one doesn’t, the one who doesn’t can actually take a pill called PrEP every day to prevent them from acquiring it. Or, say an individual has an increased risk of acquiring HIV. If they are on this medication, it will protect them. So, we can have a patient walk through the door who is here for HIV treatment or somebody who’s here for hepatitis C treatment, or it could be someone who was out over the weekend and needs to be tested. They can all be seen without judgement and have their concerns addressed. There’s no place else like that in this area.

What challenges do people in the Jamestown area face when it comes to accessing STI health services?
Number one, it’s a smaller area, so people are afraid of other people finding out or people seeing them walk through that particular door, into that particular office. It’s to the point that the stigma can prevent people from seeking the help that could change and prolong their lives. We’ve had people walk in the door finally out of sheer desperation, and we’re able to give them medications and turn everything around. Within a few months, they feel like their life has been given back to them.

How do you combat those challenges?
We go to great lengths to accommodate patients’ feelings and help diminish the stigma. For example, we honor patients’ requests to see them at the end of the day. Some patients will call from the car, and we will let them know if the waiting room is clear before they come in, or we will let them in through the back door. And if they are diagnosed with a chronic illness, we try to help them realize they are the same person they were before, and that with proper medical attention, an illness like HIV can be even easier to treat than diabetes. We will also speak to family members, if patients want, to clear up common misconceptions.

What do you want people thinking of coming to Evergreen for HIV screening or treatment to know?
This is a very nonjudgmental place. It’s very loving, compassionate, accepting and friendly. And HIV is a virus that can affect anybody. You are not defined by that virus. You may be a person who happens to have acquired a virus, but you’re not the virus. And thankfully, it’s a time of miracles now, and we have medications that treat it. And with treatment, the virus cannot be spread to others, and life expectancy is normal. It is a very manageable chronic illness. Everyone needs to know that.

What most excites you about going to work every day?
The fact that we are on the cutting edge of care. Having lived through the 1980s and ’90s, I saw friends acquire AIDS and, within a few short years, they were gone. There was no hope then. Now, patients can take medication daily to suppress it and live healthy lives, and on the horizon is an injection that can be given once a month or once every six months, and it will do the same thing. And then hopefully, there will even be a cure. But really, the treatments we have available to us now are almost as good as cures. The life expectancy of someone with HIV who is in treatment is almost the same as anyone else’s.

What makes Evergreen a great place to work?
The organization truly cares about the people that we treat and want to make sure everybody who needs these services has access to them; it is at the core of Evergreen. We have a pharmacy that will work to make sure patients don’t have high copays for even the hepatitis C medications. For people who want to be on PrEP, we will work with the pharmaceutical companies, with copay cards, to make it so that it is accessible. And it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like. If you walk into the waiting room at Evergreen, you are greeted with a smile. All patients are embraced and welcome. It’s just a place of great hope.

If you had to sum up Evergreen in one word, which word would you choose?
What’s one word to say a force for change? Let’s see. Changemakers. We’re changemakers.

Your daily contributions to that change must be highly rewarding and super challenging. What do you do outside of work to take care of yourself?
I love to cook. All four of my grandparents were Swedish, so I make things like cardamom bread and apple pies; Swedes love their sweets. And in what seems practically like another life, I was a music major, so I love to sing. I sing in our church choir. My husband and I also spend time on Lake Erie. I like to watch the sun set, see the different cloud formations. That’s my chill-out place.

A singer, baker and a nurse — you’re practically a triple threat! Tell us, how did you go from being a music major to a nurse practitioner?
When I finally went away to college, I realized there were other aspects of life and learning that I enjoy, like science. So, I came back to Jamestown and got an associate degree in nursing and then built upon that until I had my master’s degree, and I’m doing what I’m doing now. In some ways, it was a shift from thinking with the right side of my brain to the left side of my brain, but I think here at Evergreen, I integrate both, especially when it comes to reading emotions. If you walk into a room with a patient, and you’re thinking only with the left side of the brain, it’s not going to work. You’ll never get through. So, one way or another, all those years of music lessons and studying voice, somehow, it’s playing into what I’m doing now and making me a better nurse.

Evergreen is lucky to have you, Shirley! Thank you for all the compassion you bring to our patients.