Excerpted from The Record:
Lienhard alumnus Maryann Collins began working as a nurse at Hackensack University Medical Center caring for HIV/AIDS patients and their families more than 25 years ago because she felt “no one needed more advocacy than this particular group of people.”
Collins, a Demarest resident, was recently honored as a national HIV Hero, for her work with the HIV community.
She first became interested in helping the HIV community when she was a hospice nurse.
“Most of the patients that we saw were cancer patients,” said Collins. “But then we started to see the patients coming from the city with this new disease that they really at that point didn’t have a name for.”
Once HIV/AIDS patients began coming to the hospital HUMC started a hospice to see these patients. However, many nurses had husbands who were dead set against them working with these patients.
“There was a lot of ignorance,” said Collins. “I felt that someone had to do it and my husband was very supportive of me and trusted that I was going to be safe and he supported whatever I wanted to do in that area.”
Collins took it upon herself to get educated – she went to New York City and then to San Francisco to learn as much as possible about HIV. She received her master’s degree in psychiatric nursing and her specialty in catastrophic illnesses from Pace University, and become known as the hospice AIDS nurse.
As a result of caring for HIV/AIDS patients, Collins began to connect with “New Jersey Buddies” and was approached to start a support group on Wednesday evenings.
“I agreed to do it for a little while and now I am still doing it,” she said.
But the support group Collins started was only the beginning.
When she learned about the grant offered under the Ryan White heading, she wrote the initial grant to procure money for impatient needs as well as hospice. Thanks to the Ryan White grant, the hospital now has two clinics that approximately 14 people attend – one on Wednesdays and one on Thursdays. The hospital outsourced the clinics to the North Hudson Community Action Program.
“There are no provisions for HIV patients, because that’s a specialty,” said Collins. “They needed an infectious disease clinic and we expanded the grant to pay for space for both doctors and for things that were necessary to provide ongoing clinic services for people who are uninsured and HIV positive.”
Collins said the care these patients receive is good and may even be better than seeing a private physician because the care they get is “all-inclusive and all-encompassing.” She added that there is money available to send these patients to a specialist, if needed.
Collins also started a day-long program that helps teenagers understand the issues patients face when dealing with HIV. This event takes place annually on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, and caters to more than 15 schools and 500 students.
The two biggest changes Collins has seen since she began working with HIV/AIDS patients deal with medication and knowledge.
When she initially started working with these patients, people were dying monthly.
“Now we have people living 20 years,” said Collins. “The medications have side effects and problems but people are living normal lives and they remain in care and do what they need to do to stay healthy.”
Collins said she has noticed a change in the way people perceive those with HIV/AIDS and the knowledge they have about HIV/AIDS.
However, she said there is still some ignorance and the hospital sees new HIV/AIDS patients all the time.
While Collins has helped many people and their families cope with HIV/AIDS, she said her work has been a gift to her.
“My philosophy is that we all have to die and it is important that we enrich the lives of people dying as best as we can so they do not live in vain and can live life to the fullest,” said Collins. “I deal with it because I feel like not a lot of people want to deal with it.”
She said this has become a major part of her life.
“These people that come to the groups are just wonderful people,” said Collins. “I think I get more from them then I can give.”
She was especially touched when a number of her patients came to visit her when her husband died.
Collins protected the confidentially of these people and was surprised when they came to see her because it jeopardized their confidentiality – her family did not know these people and could have assumed they were her patients.
“They are great, great people who have touched my life in a very special way,” said Collins.