British Columbia

B.C. clinic celebrating 25 years of supporting women living with HIV and AIDS

The Oak Tree Clinic in Vancouver supports one third of women in the province living with HIV and is the only pediatric centre in B.C. for children living with the infection.

Oak Tree Clinic also provides pediatric care for children who are HIV positive

"The clinic provides holistic care, so not only the medical care, but access to care and addressing social challenges and barriers," says Neora Pick, medical director of the Oak Tree Clinic at B.C. Women's Hospital which has helped women and children living with HIV/AIDS for more than two decades. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Eric Dreger)

When Mary Kensley was diagnosed with HIV in her early 30s, she expected to be dead before she turned 40. Now in her 50s, Kensley credits the care she has received at a British Columbia clinic with saving her life.

"I am no longer dying from AIDS. I am living with it," said Kensley, who was referred to the Oak Tree Clinic in Vancouver immediately after her diagnosis. Now she is one of 700 adult women across the province who depend on support from the clinic for many aspects of their lives.

Oak Tree Clinic, which assists one third of B.C. women living with HIV/AIDS marks 25 years of service this month. Located at B.C. Women's Hospital, staff provide patients with specialized medical attention and also connect them to counselling, peer support, dietitians, maternity care and outreach social workers as part of a holistic care approach.

"The idea is to provide a safe place for women and a place where they will actually feel at home and feel respected and valued, a place that is free of any stigma and discrimination, which unfortunately, in 2019, they still encounter," said Neora Pick, the clinic's medical director.

Every morning, the team at Oak Tree Clinic gathers around the white board to determine the best course of action for each patient that day. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC News)

In Kensley's case, outreach staff checked in on her at home to make sure she was taking her medication, arranged transportation for her medical appointments and helped her work through addiction issues and suicide attempts.

"They stuck with me and they stuck with me and they gave me so much hope that I didn't have," said Kensley.

'Life has just been wonderful,' says Mary Kensley, who credits clinic staff with helping her get clean four years ago, checking in on her to make sure she was taking her medication and supporting her while she was struggling with addiction. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC News)

Patients like Kensley can now look forward to a normal life span with antiretroviral drugs. Since 1997, no clinic patients on a consistent course of antiretrovirals has passed on the infection to their children. 

"Twenty-five years ago it was a death sentence and now it is a chronically manageable disease," said Pick. 

But, said Pick, societal attitudes are sometimes still stuck in the past.

"The stigma is lagging after science. Some patients tell us that the stigma is worse than the disease these days," said Pick.

A visit to the clinic shows effort has been made to make the space feel as cozy and stigma-free, as possible.

There are plants and art work and jars full of colourful pieces of paper with inspirational messages patients have left for each other. Soft music gives the lobby the ambience of a comfortable living room. 

Melanie Murray, an infectious disease specialist who has worked at the clinic since 2011, says it is all part of a "tender, loving care" approach that has helped women and children not just cope, but thrive.

"Teachers, bankers, immigrants, teens, children, women from all walks of life," said Murray about the clinic's clientele, one third of whom are Indigenous. 

'I would hope that in the next 25 years we can cure HIV and all go on to other jobs,' says Dr. Melanie Murray, infectious disease specialist at the Oak Tree Clinic wo wears a beaded pin made for her by a patient. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC News)

In the last year and a half, staff launched an initiative to make the clinic more culturally safe for indigenous patients by consulting with elders and Indigenous patients on how to improve the space for their needs. 

Oak Tree is also the only pediatric centre for children living with HIV in B.C. It helps about 40 children, the majority of whom, according to staff, are new immigrants.

But as far as Murray is concerned, in an ideal world the clinic wouldn't have to help anyone at all.

"I would hope that in the next 25 years we can cure HIV and all go on to other jobs," she said.

With files from Margaret Gallagher

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