Becoming an Advocate for Health in the Russian Community: Gregori’s Story Hep C Story
Dennis Rivera is a peer navigator at AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC) and is a peer in the IDUHA Hep C Peer Navigation Program. For Dennis, peer navigation is about sharing hope and educating people about the dangers of Hep C before it’s too late. He became a peer navigator to ‘give back and to pay it forward.’
When Dennis was incarcerated in 1996, doctors told him he had hepatitis C. “At the time I didn’t think about it, I thought it was another disease, I’ll get through with it. I didn’t know how serious the disease was.” When he was released, he was unemployed and homeless for over two years. This pushed him to rely on drugs to suppress the harsh reality around him and ignore his hepatitis status.
He learned about ACQC and visited their drop-in center often. There, he was introduced to treatments for addiction, but they didn’t work. “I was an addict, and I was still using on and off. It was my thinking; I wasn’t ready to stop using.” Ultimately, Dennis turned to his spiritual guide for strength, and also to the staff at ACQC who served as his sounding board for suggestions as to how to overcome the cycle of addiction. He finally decided it was enough. He found housing through programs like Common Ground and got into methadone maintenance treatment.
After his noticeable progress, Dennis was asked to volunteer at ACQC and with his background as a case manager he was able to advance into a part-time position providing HIV testing to adolescents, and later providing peer education in the Syringe Exchange Program. “I started working in the field, I became more aware of Hep C, I learned about the dangers of it, how you contract Hep C and if you don’t treat it, what stages you could go into where it is irreversible and you can die from it.”
Last year, Dennis got the RNA test which came back positive. He was told his treatment options and he was ready to begin his journey to become Hep free. After three months of intense treatment with a combination therapy including Interferon, Dennis was cured.
“They told me at the beginning that not everyone is cured through the treatment: if you still have it, don’t get discouraged. It’s not a 100% treatment success rate. But I was cured. I try to spread the word about it, to all my clients, everybody that I approach who lets me speak with them. I want to share this information with people and help them be aware of this disease, how you can contract it and avoid it, and there’s treatment for it too. It is not a death sentence, if it is detected early and treated.”
Above all, his personal and professional experiences influenced his prevention work as a peer navigator. Dennis uses his journey overcoming addiction and becoming cured of Hep C to motivate others and send a message of hope. I am a prime example of one that came from the streets, was doing drugs, got cleaned, got a job, got my own studio apartment in Brooklyn, through the help of ACQC I pay reduced rent, it’s affordable for me because I work part-time. I’m getting back up.”
This story is part of a Peer Profile project showcasing the experiences, skills, and knowledge of peer navigators in the IDUHA Hep C Peer Navigation Program.
Written by Diana Diaz Muñoz
Diana graduated from the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College with a master in public health and is currently a program coordinator at the NYC Health Department in the Viral Hepatitis Program. In the past year, Diana worked as the program coordinator of the IDUHA Hep C Peer Navigation Program. Some of her interests include community health education, health equity, and communications.