SARASOTA, Fla. — The Center for Disease Control has ranked Florida as one of the top three states with the highest number of HIV diagnoses.
The stigma, shame, and taboo of an HIV diagnosis remains decades later, even with medical advances. Non-profit organizations like CAN Community Health are hoping to change that.
Since its inception in 1991, the non-profit has offered STD testing and resources for people who have been diagnosed with HIV.
Debbie Sergi-Laws has been apart of CAN Community Health since its birth. Before she was an employee she was a patient.
"Moving from Virginia, I was diagnosed with HIV in 1989 and my husband was also diagnosed at the time and we just needed to go some place to die," Sergi-Laws said.
As a married woman she wasn't the poster of the disease in the early 90's.
"The fact that I was a heterosexual woman that was just unheard of and I felt like I really needed to help and make people aware that this could happen to anyone," Sergi-Laws said. "It was looked at as a gay disease back then and my husband and I weren't gay. We never used intravenous drugs. Didn't have even have a tattoo and here we were living with HIV."
For years, Sergi-Laws felt lost. She was fired as a registered nurse after revealing her diagnosis and lost the hope of ever having children. It was at CAN Community Health where she found her purpose.
Amanda Santiago is the director of patient care coordinators at CAN. She said the center serves as a safe place for people who are eager to help and more importantly, listen.
"We try to treat the person as a whole. There are social services, clinical needs," Santiago said.
CAN serves as a one-stop shop for the newly diagnosed. Employees like Sergi-Laws and Santiago help them find doctors who will treat them in the moment and through the years. There are times, Sergi-Law said, when dentists won't take a patient who is HIV positive.
"The discrimination and the stigma was there in the early 90's and it still continues to be there now," Sergi-Law said.
Dr. Rishi Patel is the resident and CEO of CAN. He said the only way to fight the stigma of the disease is to talk about it.
"Our goal is to make sure that we educate. Make sure that the message is out there that HIV is still there. There is no cure. HIV does not discriminate," Dr. Patel said. "Your server at a fancy restaurant may be HIV positive. You just don't know that and that's okay."
CAN owns and operates 34 medical clinics in Florida and across the country and continues to grow.
The hope is that the mindset behind the disease and prevention will follow suit.
For more information about CAN and the services they offer click here.