"I feel great today," Stacey Sawyer said.
An HIV test came back positive for Sawyer 12 years ago. She's been friendly with the staff at Vermont CARES in Burlington ever since. The nonprofit helps her pay for the medication she needs to keep the virus in check.
"My hope is to stay HIV and not go any further into AIDS," she said.
With advances in drug technology, that is easier to do. What used to be a drug cocktail of up to 40 pills back when the HIV epidemic was getting underway in the 1980s is now down to just a single pill for many patients.
Dr. Christopher Grace and Nurse Practitioner Deborah Kutzko have seen the transformation of the disease up close. They helped launch Fletcher Allen Health Care's specialized clinic for HIV and AIDS patients 25 years ago this week.
"At that time it was a disease where everyone died," Grace said.
"Something horrifying was happening at the time. I don't think any of us knew the extent of it," Kutzko said.
So they combated the growing epidemic with a new model of care, bringing specialists together in one place to treat the different facets of the disease.
"Psychological help, family help, emotional support, hospice care. So you needed a system, a clinic program, a home if you will, to provide this care," Grace said.
What started in Burlington spread to other clinics in Rutland, Brattleboro and St. Johnsbury. There are 450 patients now. And a few have been around from the start-- 25 years ago--- and are still going strong. Living with the disease has changed thanks to new treatments. And now, so is the way experts hope to stop the spread of the virus.
"Now, there is very good information that says if you do have HIV, you go on these meds, get your virus suppressed, that the transmission rates almost go away," Grace said.
Another reason why advocates say getting tested and starting treatment is so important.
"Early intervention is critical," said Peter Jacobsen of Vermont CARES. "The earlier someone starts on HIV meds, the longer they are likely to live and the healthier they'll be during their lifetime."
Testing involves a mouth swab and results are available in about 20 minutes. The test is free at Vermont CARES.
For more information:
Vermont CARES free HIV testing -- www.vtcares.org/
Other HIV testing resources -- http://healthvermont.gov/prevent/aids/testing.aspx
PO Box 4508