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Philomena McGee
Hartford, Connecticut

Philomena McGee
  Philomena McGee spent part of her childhood in an orphanage in Ireland. Now she helps HIV-positive people in Hartford, Conn. who are struggling out from substance abuse and incarceration.
Helping Former Substance Abusers With HIV Philomena McGee knows a little something about defying the odds. She was born the third of nine children to poor Irish parents. At the age of 13, when her mother was killed by a drunk driver, she was placed in an orphanage. Three years later, her first job out of the orphanage was as a maid for one of the wealthiest men in the world. By the time she was 18, she had immigrated to the United States with her fiancé.

Though she only had a sixth-grade education, she didn't hesitate to pursue further schooling. While working part-time and raising her two children, Philomena received her General Education Degree. In her thirties, she went on to graduate school and got a Master's degree in science. Given the adversity that she had to beat, it is no surprise that Philomena has been so successful at her chosen profession -- treatment advocate at a Hartford, Conn. drug treatment center for people with HIV.

Philomena seems to try to find what is powerful and positive in every individual who walks through her door. Her clients have had lives of addiction and have often been in and out of the prison system. They may be dealing with hepatitis C as well as HIV and mental health illness. She has the feisty energy and positive can-do attitude that inspires. She placed a banner on the wall of her office with her unique definition of AIDS -- she defines AIDS as acceptance, inspiration, divinity and spirituality, which she asks her clients to embrace. She says she came up with this because of the profound stigma associated with AIDS. As the person who nominated her wrote, "She is responsible for turning my life around, Irish lass -- plenty strong medicine. I was crazy, scared. ... I've found 100 more CD4 cells since I met her. My life is 1,000% better."


How long have you been working with people living with HIV?

I've been working with people with HIV since 1990.
"Society is not kind to women living with the virus ... A lot of the women I see are wounded souls who experienced mental, emotional, physical or sexual abuse when they were children."

Tell me about the demographics of your clientele.

I work in the inner city of Hartford. Our program is a Ryan White I Entitlement support Program. This means that my clients have to meet income criteria to qualify for free Ryan White care. Usually, they are not hooked up to any services. Because our total focus is on substance abuse and mental health for people living with HIV, 75% of those we see have been in and out of prisons because of their addiction issues. Fifty percent of our clients are women. Fifty percent are African American, 25% are Hispanic and 25% are Caucasian. We have a harm-reduction model, so when someone who is in recovery comes in, the door stays open for him or her, even in the case of a relapse. Our approach is holistic and so we try to deal with the whole person. One of our big problems is that people are resistant to taking medications for their mental health issues or to treat HIV. I help with both mental health and HIV treatment. We have the luxury of spending as much time as we want with each client. We do a lot of education on how HIV works either in a one-on-one or a group setting. We have two mental health and HIV education groups, and two substance abuse groups that meet every week for education and healing. People ask questions. It's very interactive.

Can you tell me specifically how methamphetamine has impacted patients who are already infected?

Yes, we've had a few. They were young and knew very little about the affects of the drug on their minds and bodies. They blame the drug for becoming infected because it impaired their judgment.

What percentage of your clinic are immigrants?

We do not have that many. We have only a small percentage of clients from the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean islands.

Can you describe how your work has changed since you first started?

I know a lot more about the virus and how it mutates. My approach to working with clients living with the virus has changed over the years. I have become more aware that people living with HIV/AIDS have a lot to teach us about acceptance, compassion, hope and love. Though I continue to learn from my clients, it is now my turn to teach them how they should have acceptance, compassion, hope and love for themselves. The faces of some clients change, but the message remains the same.

If I were to follow you over the week, what would I see you do at work?

I do a combination of client work and paper work. I help get people into detox and/or treatment run groups, sit on steering committees, do home or hospital visits when needed or follow up with clients' community providers.. For two hours, at least once a month, I attend the Ryan White I council meeting. I also do crisis intervention when needed, and I make referrals those who need mental health treatment. On Thursdays, dinner is served to clients and sometimes I sit and talk with them.

What's the best thing about your job?

I work in an off-site office. I love working with our clients and the freedom I have to interact with them in an informal environment. They are great teachers, at least to me. I love seeing them grow, watching them struggle to heal their old destructive patterns and sharing their successes and failures with me. I also enjoy networking within the community to improve services for clients and breaking down barriers to those services. I get lots of vacation time throughout the year. My coworkers are the best; we have a great support system and we have great bosses that support us. We have lots of fun and laughter.

What's the worst thing about your job?

The paper work; working with the social service system and dealing with others who have their own agenda and are not focused on the clients' needs. I sometimes have clients who want all of my attention, but they are not willing to do any work. Then it is really frustrating the times when I can't find my own paper work.

What have been your greatest successes in your work? Greatest failures?

Greatest Successes: My greatest successes have been in engaging clients in their own healing and recovery. I've implemented peer-led groups when the staff is out of the office; broken down cultural barriers to mental health treatment through education; taught clients that the virus is living with them, not the other way around. I've also helped clients to discover their own spiritual self; to laugh more, cry more and love themselves more and I've helped some clients have a peaceful death. I've built up a network of support in the community so I can advocate more effectively for my clients.

Greatest failures: I don't see things as failures. I see lessons in every thing I do or don't do, and I strongly believe that all people are self-determined to live their lives the way they know how. Often, I sit and wait until a client is open to a healthier way of life.

Tell me about the innovative stuff you do.

I have a big banner, that I designed that defines AIDS in the following way -- The God Factor in AIDS Acceptance, Inspiration, Divinity and SpiritualityŠ 1990. The first three lead to spirituality, which I believe is defined by all people differently. By spirituality I mean really appreciating a sunset or believing in the miracle of surviving the virus, or whatever brings joy to the heart of the person. I use this concept in workshops and in groups. My clients seem to respond to it. It challenges their belief system. Many people associate spirituality with good and bad. There is no good and bad in this virus.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a case manager/social worker?

The biggest challenge is dealing with clients who are facing death. I have to face letting go of our relationship while dealing with the spiritual needs of that client. Some clients have no one to advocate for them and some friends or family members do not know how to assess the spiritual needs of their dying loved one. This can make my work challenging and also very rewarding. I also have to deal with clients' mistrust of the system and of the professionals who help them. In general, I find barriers to treatment challenging.

For the most part, what do you think is the biggest risk factor for HIV?

Ignorance of how HIV is transmitted. Most people are not aware that HIV is spread by unprotected sex, sharing needles, doing drugs and bad judgment. Both men and women appear to have a big fear of saying no to unprotected sex.

What is the most important thing you have learned from the people you work with?

I have learned acceptance. I've also learned to listen and to ask for feedback.

How do you maintain a positive outlook and avoid burning out?

Dealing with people from a holistic perspective allows me to take into account the totality of their life experiences. In other words, I will take in someone's entire history, their family, philosophy and core beliefs, then I go about working with them to see which belief systems are helping them and which ones are hurting them. I try to meet the client exactly where they are at.

I have developed a philosophy that is spirituality based. That means that for each person who comes into the office, I see the person first. It doesn't have to do with any particular religious belief, I just see everyone as a child of God. I believe that all people are entitled to live their life as they see fit or based on what they know. When they land in my office, we start from where the client is at that moment. People do not change until their ego pain is greater than their ego gain. I take the time to indulge each client while they slowly discover their pain, and they move towards change.

I do not burn out because I am not invested, nor do I depend on clients changing to please me. I detach with understanding. I do not personalize their issues, becoming upset because they reject my suggestions. I see myself in service to clients and, in turn, they teach me what works well for them. I acknowledge and validate that each client's life journey is different than mine, and how they want to continue their journey is up to them. They can live life by chance or by choice. Either way we are here to help.
"Because our total focus is on substance abuse and mental health for people living with HIV, 75% of those we see have been in and out of prisons because of their addiction issues."

If you weren't doing what you are doing now, what would you be? Why?

I would be living by the ocean, sitting on the end of a rainbow, drinking a glass of wine, and finishing my book (Shadows of the Soul) that I am currently working on. This is my dream, and I'd like to write another book: The God Factor in AIDS, dedicated to all people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as many more after that.

What do you think are the biggest problems people with HIV face today?

They face barriers to treatment, from the client's view and society's attitude towards HIV/AIDS and ignorance regarding what the disease is all about. Sometimes when clients are facing death they don't know what their options are. They don't know that they can die with dignity and without pain i.e., at home if they would like or at a hospice. Sometimes, I have to advocate for them.

Do you see a lot of women now?

Fifty percent of our caseload is women.

What is life like for the women with HIV you see?

The women with HIV we see have difficult lives. They are dealing with addiction and the lifestyle they have in order to sustain their habits. Relationships with children and family are stressed, and some of them may be dealing with the guilt of having transmitted the virus to their children. They may be dealing with protective services for their children. Some have lost their children to the system. They are isolated from society in general, which is extremely difficult. Society is not kind to women living with the virus. There are many myths and far too many judgments towards women with HIV/AIDS to get into this here. Women are looked on as mothers and nurturers. A lot of the women we deal with have had their children taken away.. They feel a lot of shame and isolation as a result. While they were active in their addiction, they did not go near their family. These women think they are bad people instead of just people with bad judgment. A lot of the women I see are wounded souls who experienced mental, emotional, physical or sexual abuse when they were children.

What kind of services do they often need that are different than the services men need?

Women need more support programs to deal with their issues. Medical problems appear to be multiplied for women. There is not enough childcare available for women, so they're unable to gain access to more programs. Women internalize a lot of society's attitudes towards themselves, and it blocks them from seeing that they are good people who use bad judgment when they are under the influence of addiction, whether it is from drugs, sex, food or relationships.

Do you work with any particular population of people? What are the specific challenges these people face?

The population I work with are the most needy. They come from prisons, shelters, halfway houses, supportive housing and independent living. All our clients have to fit into the guidelines under Ryan White.


Who would you dedicate this award to if you could?

I would dedicate this award to my clients.


Where did you grow up?

County Kilkenny, Ireland

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I am the third oldest of nine children. I grew up in the 1950s, in Thomastown, County Kilkenny in Ireland. My family was quite poor. We grew up in the shadows of the holy Catholic Church. Time was spent surviving and working rather than playing, as children should. I had no notion as to what I wanted to do. I knew I would not have a lot of children and would not marry a poor man. Both came true.

What kind of work did your parents do?

My father was a laborer and my mother was a housewife. My mother died when I was 13 and we ended up in an orphanage.

When did you decide you wanted to be a social worker?

I was in my late twenties, raising a family, and working part-time as a Friendly's waitress. I was suddenly struck by the thought of not wanting to do this for the rest of my life. I went and got my GED. When my kids were in high school, I went to college. My major in college was sociology and social relationships.

What other jobs have you had?

Domestic violence counselor, consultant and trainer for conflict resolution program for public school systems. I have done housecleaning, babysitting and school cafeteria work.

What made you decide to do this kind of work?

People. I love people. They would talk to me in all kinds of lines (grocery store, movie, etc.) and I would listen to their life stories. To me, people are the most fascinating creatures on this planet. I do have the gift of the gab (Irish saying) and the ability to clearly see the resolutions to most problems (when asked!).

Who were the most influential people in your life, both professionally and personally?

This is an answer that does not belong to any one person. I will begin with my daughter. She died at the age of four. That forced me to deal with emotions on a deep level and depressed emotions from my mother's death, and my family and friends. One of the most influential person in my whole life was Ted, a spiritual healer and Master Soul who took me under his wing to mentor me. He helped me discover my God-given gifts and how to use them to help people. Other influential people include my clients, because they teach me acceptance and humility on a daily basis.

What do you do in your spare time?

Spare time, what is that? (Just kidding!) I write, cook, travel, read and spend time with family and friends. I have a small private practice teaching and doing healing work.

Do you have a partner? Kids?

I am currently single. My two sons are grown. Both graduated from college (to my delight!). My oldest son, Myles, is a construction inspector for the town of New Britain, Conn. My other son, Patrick, is an assistant director for a lumber company in Avon, Conn. Between the two of them, I have five grandchildren.
"My greatest successes have been in engaging clients in their own healing and recovery."

Where do you live? What do you like/dislike about it?

I live in a condo community. I'm new there and I love it. It is placed in a country setting in the town of Ellington, Conn. I have not found anything that I dislike about it yet.

If you had any place to live besides where you live now, where would you live?

I would live on Cape Cod, on the oceanfront. There is a house there that I would love to own. (I can dream!)

What's the best vacation you ever had?

A trip to Iceland. The people and the land are beautiful. The food is all natural and the natural springs and pools are great.

What's the biggest adventure you ever had?

An all-expense paid trip to India for a Hindu wedding. I had no idea what to expect. There are so many contrasts between a third world country and the United States!

Are you still in touch with your brothers and sisters?

Yes, they all live in England or Ireland. And I go about every two years. My children spent their summers in Ireland and now they go with their own children.

What's currently on your bedside table for reading?

Trace by Patrice Cornwell, The Game of Life and How to Play It by Florence Scovel Shinn.

What book would you say has had the most impact on you?

The Lost Years of Jesus by Elizabeth Clair Prophet.

What kind of music do you like to listen to? Who are the artists you listen to the most?

I like Strauss, Mozart, Chopin and music from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Soft rock.

Anything else you think it would be important that people reading this interview know about you?

I am also a certified hypnotist, rebirther, Reiki master teacher, clairvoyant consultant, spiritual medium, soul historian and ordained minister.