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Longtime AIDS, hep C fighter retires

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Nurse Valerie Robb retired after<br>nearly three decades of helping people living with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.
Nurse Valerie Robb retired after
nearly three decades of helping people living with HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.  

A lesbian San Francisco nurse who's helped fight HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C for almost three decades recently retired.

Valerie Robb, 62, who's spent much of her career at the city's well-known HIV clinic, said, "I need to retire so I can do some more activism now that we have the current presidential leadership, but I'm very pleased with the things we were a part of at Ward 86."

Robb's history with fighting HIV and AIDS goes back to the early 1980s, when she started working at UCSF Medical Center at Mt. Zion. She said by working on a cancer ward, she was "used to people being very sick, people of all ages."

However, Robb, whose last day of work was June 29, said, "We started getting really sick young men with these various opportunistic infections," which were "terrible." Friends and acquaintances started getting sick, too, and around 1984, her best friend's brother got pneumocystis pneumonia and died.

"It was this new illness that I thought was going to get a cure," said Robb. The thought was, "Oh, they'll figure this out soon," and when her friend's brother died, she recalls thinking, "Thank God I won't have to go through that again."

But that turned out to be the beginning of an epidemic that has raged for 36 years and continues to affect millions of people around the world. In the 1980s, San Francisco developed a model of care centered on the medical and nonprofit communities at a time when then-President Ronald Reagan would not utter the word "AIDS" and a federal response was lacking.

Robb said she and others at the cancer ward "had the same skill set needed to provide care for patients coming in with AIDS," and those skills were put to use. Robb left the ward in 1988 and joined Visiting Nurses and Hospice, which eventually became the Department of Public Health's Health at Home program.

In the early 1990s, Robb started working on a project at the Ambassador, a residential hotel in the Tenderloin neighborhood.

The Ambassador, one of the hotels managed by the late gay AIDS activist Hank Wilson and his friend Ron Lanza (who died four years ago), was frequented by many queer and transgender people and became an early epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. Wilson put together a team of care providers, and with a small group of activists, started the Tenderloin AIDS Network in 1986. After running on a shoestring budget, TAN obtained city funding to open a storefront in 1990, becoming the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center.

The Ambassador was known as housing of last resort for people no one else would take. By the early 1990s, it was the largest supportive AIDS housing program in the country, and it came to be regarded as a model of community care and harm reduction.

Robb said that people at the Ambassador were "a somewhat more diverse group of people" than those she'd worked with from the Castro, since the hotel drew a mix of gay, straight, and bisexual men and women.

She said the sentiment among activists at the hotel was, "We want the people in our hotel to get the same kind of treatment we see our friends getting in the Castro."

Over the next 14 years, Robb worked with the Ambassador and other hotels, and then she went to Lutheran Social Services. The agency got a five-year grant to offer care to homeless adults who were living with HIV and only had access to general assistance, "so they couldn't even afford a hotel room," she said.

Around that time, people started paying attention to the role injection drug use was playing in driving the AIDS epidemic.

Robb said one of the contributions she made was "to look at the concept of community-building among active users."

Access to drug treatment and other services was limited to people who were still using drugs.

Around 1991, she said, "If you wanted to get housing, you had to go through a clearance process," and then you'd be recommended to get three to six months of treatment.

"Our guys were going to be dead in two months," said Robb. "It was this ridiculously impossible situation."

But Robb and others supported and comforted patients who weren't fit for hospice because they were still doing drugs.

Fighting hepatitis C

In 2000, Robb went to Ward 86, the pioneering HIV/AIDS outpatient clinic at what's now known as Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

"Of the 3,000 patients we had at Ward 86, probably 40 percent of them ... had HIV and chronic hepatitis C," said Robb. She and others started working more to help people with hepatitis C, including a weekly support group, and they educated patients and providers about the disease.

Now, said Robb, she and others are getting closer to "eradicating hepatitis C infections in our clinic." The introduction of "miracle" medications has helped, too, she said.

"We went from treating 20 patients a year with the old medication to 120 patients a year with the new medication," said Robb.

Robb said she wants to see an end to HIV and hepatitis C.

"Where we're still missing young people or mentally ill people or people that just can't take a pill, I want us to solve that," she said.

In a statement to the Bay Area Reporter, lesbian Health Director Barbara Garcia said Robb "has been engaged from the earliest years of the epidemic, caring for patients who might otherwise have been lost or forgotten. She has been a stalwart of Ward 86 for a long time, part of the team that provides outstanding care there. Years ago, she was a visiting nurse at the Ambassador Hotel when many said that residents there were hopeless. Valerie has been a true leader in the fight against HIV and Hepatitis C, a nursing leader and role model, tireless advocate, compassionate caregiver and a moral compass for many."

 

Activist plans

Robb, who's married to Suzanne Hufft, a social worker at the Tom Waddell Urban Health Clinic, has three grandchildren she's looking forward to spending time with, and she's also looking forward to sail boating and traveling.

But there's still plenty of activism for her to engage in. She said the administration of President Donald Trump "puts everything in danger," including people living with HIV/AIDS and immigrants.

San Francisco has been "a leader" for the rest of the world and "an activist city, and we've demanded our people with AIDS get services," said Robb.

"I don't think we'll stop being leaders now, but it's so sad that we have to do this," she said, referring to dealing with the chaos Trump has brought. Like many, she expected Democrat Hilary Clinton to become president.

"I was really looking forward to continuing a progressive agenda," she said, instead of having to fight Trump.

 

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