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In the mid-1980s, Liza Pereira moved from New York City to Niagara Falls in pursuit of better schools and a better neighborhood for her two young children. She eventually found her way to Evergreen Health, first as a patient and then as a part-time peer counselor. Now, in her current position as a hepatitis C linkage specialist, Liza is helping patients break down the barriers that prevent them from seeking treatments that could save their lives. In our latest Team Evergreen interview, she talks to us about her role and the many personal challenges she overcame to get here.
How is it that you came to work at Evergreen?
It was a long journey, because when I first came to Buffalo, I was 19, and right around that time, I got into the IV drug user lifestyle. I sold drugs. I used drugs. I haven’t used in 20 years, but I needed treatment for hepatitis C and have been HIV positive for 24 years and was a patient of Evergreen when it first opened. So, there wasn’t a career path that brought me here. I kind of fell into this position. At one point, my treatment provider, she came to me about a peer position at Evergreen. She asked for my resume. I got a call, I came in for the interview and the rest is history. At the time, I was going to Buffalo State for my bachelor’s degree in marketing. I took the job part-time so that I could finish school.
What was it like being a patient at Evergreen?
Evergreen is the first place, since I’ve been HIV positive, that treated me like a human being. They didn’t look at me with disdain or like I deserved to have HIV or like I wasn’t worth taking care of. It was exactly the opposite. They couldn’t do enough for me. They wanted to show me that it’s okay. And with the education they’ve given me, I know that if I take my medications every day and go to my appointments, I’m good. I stay undetectable. I live a normal life. I do things like everybody else. I enjoy things like everybody else. Evergreen opened the world up for me.
What did you do in your first role at Evergreen?
I worked with patients as a peer, as someone with a shared life experience in HIV, substance use and hepatitis C treatment. I worked with patients as a support system—the idea being that when I talk to people that have been through the same things that I’ve been through, maybe they will be more adherent to treatment, more willing to come back. My role has evolved since then, but since the beginning, for the first time in my life, I work somewhere I belong. I’m free to be me. They know who I am. I’m Liza—the person. Yeah, I did drugs before. I’m positive. I’ve been cured of hepatitis C. But they don’t look at me like that. They see me for me: a good person, a hard worker, someone they can depend on, someone that connects to the people who come through these doors.
What do you do now at Evergreen?
As a hepatitis C linkage specialist, I touch base with patients when they come in for treatment. I go over treatment with them, because we know that sometimes patients may not ask the provider certain questions, but they might be more honest with me when I tell them my background. I talk to them to find out whether or not they have any barriers to treatment—whether they have transportation issues or housing issues.
Because if they’re living on the street or if they are wondering where their next meal is coming from, is a medical appointment really the first thing on their mind? Once we’ve identified the barriers, I work with patients to overcome them. We have resources here, and we can link them to other services.
What do you like most about your job?
Saying to a patient, “Hey, you finished your treatment. You’re cured.” There’s something that happens when I tell people that. It’s a sense of accomplishment, especially for people like me who ran the streets and have been in and out of jail and substance or alcohol treatment. We have a tendency to be looked at in a certain way. But to finish something—hepatitis C treatment—and be cured of it, it’s almost a miracle for us. I know for me it was. And I see it sometimes in their eyes. That makes me feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I have finally found my niche.
What makes you well suited for your role?
I identify with being homeless. I identify with being an IV drug user. I identify with choosing drugs over your children. I identify with being all by myself in this world, even though I have a very supportive family. I’ve had times in my life where I felt alone in a room full of people. I get it. I get it. I get it. So, I see that sometimes in others. In the difficult cases, I see it. I think that’s what gives me the drive. My mother always believed in me, even when I didn’t believe in myself. I want to be that person for someone. I want to be somebody’s one person that believes in them.
What do you like most about Evergreen as an organization?
I love what we do and how we do it and that we don’t apologize for who we are. We’re like this huge, eclectic piece of art. There are all these pieces, and you might look at us and think it doesn’t really make sense, but it makes sense. We are a bunch of people who are out there in the community working with the people who are left behind. We’re working with the LGBTQ community. We are working with the substance user community. We are working with people who come from other countries who have language barriers. We’re making it possible for them to come here. We are creating a space that’s inclusive for our employees as well. They allow us to be who we are. They encourage, they support. It’s like a family here.
What keeps you busy outside of work?
I still go to recovery meetings a few times a week. I like crafts. I have a crafting machine that cuts vinyl my son gave me for Christmas last year, and I’ve just been a nut with it. I also recently left a 19-year relationship, so I’m kind of starting over as far as that goes. But I met someone new a few months ago, and we’ve been dating. I’ve got my friends, and we throw sober parties and dance. I love to dance. It’s my favorite thing to do in the world. I don’t need anybody to ask me; I go out there and do it myself.
It sounds like you’re living your best life.
I’m 52 years old. I always joke that I’m closer to the end than I am the beginning, so I’m just trying to get everything I can out of this. I have the luxury of living two lives in a single lifetime, you know? There was the old me and now, there’s this new me. So, I’m taking advantage.
We can all find inspiration in that. Thanks for sharing your story, Liza!