When Vitalina Samayar discovered she was HIV-positive, she was confused, helpless and five months pregnant.
Emergency Medi-Cal covered AZT treatments long enough for her to deliver a healthy baby who has since tested negative for the virus that causes AIDS. But after Medi-Cal ran out, she didn't know where to turn for help.
Finally, one medical facility that refused to see her gave her a telephone number for the Women's Care Center, a new medical and social services facility especially for women like her at Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.
Since it opened in April, the state-funded center has provided case management in English and Spanish, medical treatment, counseling and other services including child care at little or no cost. Most of the 40 clients are Latinas from central Los Angeles.
"They give me everything here--medicine, examinations, transportation," said Samayar, 41, who emigrated from Guatemala three years ago, as she cradled a chubby baby in a tiny pink satin dress. "They even take care of my little girl."
The Women's Care Center is located inside the hospital's medical tower, and when construction is complete it will be connected to the medical facilities of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, where patients receive treatment.
The center is funded by the California Department of Health Services, and is run by five organizations that serve HIV/AIDS patients: Prototypes, a publicly funded drug and alcohol treatment program for women; the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which provides sliding-scale medical and hospice services to HIV/AIDS patients; T.H.E. (To Help Everyone) Clinic, which provides medical and case management services to women with HIV/AIDS, and the support groups L.A. Shanti and Being Alive.
A second center will open in Berkeley later this year.
Director Mary Lucey, formerly a volunteer with Prototypes, believes that by offering patients everything from help with their medical paperwork and free household hygiene products to mental health counseling and medical care, the center is providing a continuum of care that women with HIV/AIDS have had little access to until now.
"From the minute you test positive, we will take care of you all the way until the end," she said. "We will even set up hospice care."
Some of the center's staff and volunteers are qualified to empathize with the patients as well as sympathize: Lucey, a tall, robust-looking woman in her mid-30s, was diagnosed HIV-positive eight years ago.
"They get a little encouragement when they see me," she said, laughing. "They think 'OK, she's still going.' "
Inside the Women's Care Center, child-size chairs and toys share space with couches in the waiting room, where staff members watch patients' children as their mothers are evaluated by case workers.
"This is the hot seat," said case manager Alice Meza, pointing to a chair by the window where she seats new arrivals to determine their needs. She helps console those still reeling from the shock of their diagnosis.
Meza says that about 75% of the women who have come through the center are Latinas, the majority of them infected by their husbands and boyfriends. Only a few of their patients have been drug users.
She blames two factors as contributors to the fact that Latinas are the fastest-growing population segment to be infected by HIV: cultural taboos against male homosexuality that encourage some men to pursue bisexual lifestyles, and double-standard "macho" attitudes that allow men to have extramarital affairs.
"That means the woman ends up having relations with whoever the man has them with," Meza said.
Samayar, who became infected as a newlywed three years ago, had never married in her youth, choosing instead to save herself for the right man. She met him shortly after her arrival in Los Angeles, but did not count on him having HIV.
She says she was furious with her husband when they were first diagnosed, but then decided to give him her support. Both partners are being treated through the center. Their baby remains healthy.
"I just pray to God to give me health and life because I have my little girl," Samayar said.
Information: (213) 662-7420.