While Michael Valentin helped his brother climb out of a crack cocaine addiction, he realized that he had discovered his life's work. Soon Michael began volunteering at St. Francis hospital where he tagged along with an addiction specialist and learned the ins and outs of addiction recovery. He muses that it was this experience that, "Really opened my mind to what goes into changing a person and helped me understand what my brother went through."
Michael now works as a social worker overseeing social services for more than 1,800 HIV-positive people at the Peter Ho Memorial Clinic, one of the oldest and largest facility for patients with HIV in New Jersey.
When asked how he could abandon the big bucks of aeronautical engineering for the comparatively low paying field of social work, Michael says he lives by the former baseball player Roberto Clemente's words, "If you go through life and you help no one, maybe your life is not worth living."
How long have you been working with people living with HIV?
I have been working with persons living with HIV for 12 years.
Tell me a little about your patient demographic.
Saint Michael's Medical Center, where the Peter Ho clinic is based, is a charity-based hospital. We take people regardless of their ability to pay. I'm part of a very unique team at our clinic; we provide services to everyone who enters our doors. We have a "family" style approach. It's part of our mission statement: to foster the values of love, compassion, justice and reverence for life.
As a manager of social services, part of what I do is connect people to services -- we try to get patients on Medicaid, ADAP and other entitlements they may be eligible for. In terms of demographics, 60% of our patients are African American, 30% are Hispanic and the rest are white. We have a 50/50 male/female breakdown. The clinic is right near the Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey, which has a large South American community with a lot of Brazilians. In terms of our Hispanic breakdown, it runs the gamut; we have lots of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans and people from the Caribbean.
Does being Puerto Rican yourself help you with these patients?
Sometimes a Puerto Rican client will say to me "You should help me out more because we are from the same country." I try to focus on the person, not where they are from. It's not about your nationality; it's about your disease. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico is up there in the statistics in terms of the number of people living with HIV.
How many people come to your clinic and what's your staff like?
We have over 1,800 clients, with 500-600 of these people coinfected with hepatitis C. We have a hepatitis C center within our buildings. At our clinic we have three case managers, an addictions counselor and a treatment adherence coach. We have six physicians and two nurses. So each of the case managers has 600 clients. We try to keep to the Ryan White standard care regarding case management, but having so many clients is tough. We try to make our job easier by coming up with programs that help. Every Monday, we have three-hour orientation for new patients. Since this orientation began three years ago, five mostly new patients a week come into the orientation. That's how we've grown so rapidly.
Tell me about your adherence program.
We have a program called the DASL program, which is an acronym for "Drug Adherence Saves Lives." This program is for anyone on HIV treatment at the clinic. We give patients a $25 coupon to Pathmark Supermarket every three months as long as they stay undetectable. This helps in terms of adherence. I always say it's good that patients are getting this incentive, but it's really important that they stay on track. We try to be creative. Maybe we'll find another incentive-based program.
How do you deal with providing prevention to your clients?
I cannot because under the mission statement of Saint Michael's Medical Center, which is a Roman Catholic hospital, you cannot talk about sex at all. I could talk about risk reduction, but not sex. This is tough.
Can you describe how your work has changed since you first started?
The fact that there are more resources for individuals with HIV (i.e., medications, information and supportive services). Although there is still discrimination and stigma associated with this disease, what we need to keep doing is to continue advocating and speaking out on all issues that pertain to individuals who are infected with the virus.
If I were to follow you over the week, what would I see you do at work?
My primary job is overseeing a department that provides services for our more than 1,800 patients with HIV or HIV/hepatitis C co-infection. My day is split amongst seeing patients, administrative duties and working on patient programs.
What's the best thing about your job?
Teaching patients and their caregivers about HIV disease and empowering them to take charge of their lives.
What's the worst thing about your job?
I think the most frustrating part of my job is not having the resources readily available when needed.
What have been your greatest successes in your work? Greatest failures?
The greatest success that I have had in my work is touching the life of a patient who is suffering with the virus and seeing them reach their full potential, whether it be medically, recovery from drug use, etc. Greatest failure: STILL NO CURE!!
What is the biggest challenge you face as a case manager/social worker? Would other people in your profession give a similar answer?
The biggest challenge is, of course, getting more funding and education to reach people who are unaware of their status. We could do our work more effectively if we had programs that were readily available when needed. For those who are in this profession, education and funding are two huge components of our work. Another issue is that, in our clinic at least, our major problem is substance abuse. At least 60% of our clinic population is still actively using intravenous drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine.
For the most part, what do you think is the biggest risk factor for HIV?
Individuals having unprotected sex. The lack of attention that the media provides to the war on HIV/AIDS.
What is the most important thing you have learned from the people you work with?
The most important thing that I have learned from my patients is their willingness to live with this virus and their ability to overcome obstacles when presented.
How do you maintain a positive outlook and avoid burning out?
Family support, my wife Kristi and our son Michael -- they keep me grounded.
If you weren't doing what you are doing now, what would you be?
I would be working for a major airline as an airline pilot or mechanic.
What do you think are the biggest problems people living with HIV face today?
The biggest problem a person with HIV faces is still the stigma that is associated with the disease. If society were accepting of this pandemic, those who are infected would feel more accepted.
Who would you dedicate this award to if you could?
To my patients and their families, both present and past whom have allowed me the honor of being a part of their lives.
Where did you grow up?
Union City, New Jersey.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
An airline pilot.
What kind of work did your parents do?
My mother worked for North Hudson Community Action (community health center). She assisted individuals in seeking employment. My dad worked for the Union City Sanitation department. He worked for the Department of Public Works.
When did you decide you wanted to be a social worker? What was your major in college?
In 1995, when I decided to obtain my master's in social work. My major in undergraduate school was aeronautical engineering.
What other jobs have you had?
I worked for a major fashion designer as a computer operator.
What made you decide to do this kind of work?
A family member was struggling with drugs and I felt that I needed to help him. I guess in the "helping" process, he opened my eyes to what I really wanted to do in life.
Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?
Personally, the most influential person in my life has been my mother, who, unfortunately, died of cancer at the age 45. She taught me to be a good person and to always help those in need. Professionally, my mentor and friend Ms. Elena Perez, who is one of the strongest advocates that I know.
What do you do in your spare time?
I enjoy traveling with my family and playing outdoor sports.
Can you tell us about your family?
My wife Kristi is a child therapist. We have a lovable two-and-a-half-year-old boy, Michael.
Where do you live? What kind of community is it? What do you like/dislike about it?
We live in Union, New Jersey. I like this area because it is a diverse community.
If you could live any place besides where you live now, where would it be?
What's the best vacation you ever had?
My honeymoon. We went on a seven-day cruise and spent a week in Puerto Rico.
What's the biggest adventure you ever had?
My wife and I traveled for over three weeks on a baseball tour through seven states.
What's currently on your bedside table for reading?
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom.
What book would you say has had the most impact on you?
The Story of Roberto Clemente by Jim O'Connor.
What kind of music do you like to listen to? Who are the artists you listen to the most?
Jazz. Chris Botti, David Benoit, David Koz, etc.
Anything else you think it would be important that people reading this interview know about you?
I just want to say that I'm extremely dedicated to my patients and motivated to give them the best care possible. I'm always willing to go that extra mile.