Off-Site but On-Duty: A Lesson in Patient Advocacy

As a Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) Navigator at Howard Brown, my main responsibilities include providing sexual health and harm reduction education and assisting patients in completing prescription medication assistance program (PMAP) applications. However, at the core of these responsibilities is being an advocate for patients.

On occasion, PrEP patients will meet with me and disclose they have more needs than just accessing their medication. Patients may be struggling to find stable housing, transportation to medical appointments and work, or food. When it comes to the last of these social service needs, patients often encounter several barriers. Many food pantries require patients to supply an address in order to receive items from their distributions. This can be problematic if you do not have stable housing. Howard Brown has a partnership with Lakeview Pantry to refer patients in such situations.

Flashback to several months prior to discovering this partnership, I was searching the internet for some outside service opportunities. I had previously volunteered with food pantries and shelters and was interested in getting involved in similar service again. I found Lakeview Pantry, liked the flexibility of their hours, and proximity to my home. I attended the volunteer orientation and began signing up for a few shifts haphazardly. Typically, I serve as a personal shopper, helping clients choose and bag their groceries during Saturday distributions. I enjoyed my volunteer time as a break from my normal host-site service routine and an opportunity to interact with different groups of people.

Back at my host site, I was serving as the on-call PrEP Navigator for the walk-in clinic. A patient walked in hoping to speak with someone about PrEP prescription medication assistance services. I went downstairs to the lobby, led them back to an office where we could speak confidentially, and sat down to discuss programs with them. Before I could finish my opening sentence, they burst into tears and said, “I just don’t know how to be homeless.” It quickly became apparent that this patient needed social services more than a refill of their PrEP prescription. I was able to provide them with a referral to Lakeview Pantry. As they walked out of the clinic with that piece of paper in their hand, they waved at me with a smile and greater sense of ease that their current situation would not be their permanent situation.

A few weeks later, I was serving my regular Saturday shift at Lakeview Pantry’s Oakdale location. A couple of clients were finishing packing up their groceries and we were starting to clean for closing. A new client came in last minute frantically asking if distribution had ended. There were about ten minutes left. Our regular, super-volunteer sat down to register the client. When asked for their address, the client stumbled and reluctantly said, “Well, I’m homeless”, almost as an admission to themself as much as the registration team. Their panic crept back to their face as they fumbled through their pockets for a piece of paper saying they were a Howard Brown patient referred to Lakeview Pantry. The registration team shifted their process to accommodate this client so they could receive services.

Although I was wearing a different t-shirt and donning a different service hat, my mind floated to the patients I had referred to Lakeview Pantry as a PrEP Navigator at Howard Brown. Having seen the impact of this partnership from both ends, I was grateful for both organizations’ ability to work together so that patients and clients could access both healthcare and adequate nutrition.

This blog post was written by NHC Chicago 2017-18 member Theresa Rager.

Theresa is a PrEP navigator at Howard Brown Health Center.