“Stop, you’re making me cry”
Talking about a hero on World AIDS Day
By Enid Vazquez
TPAN’s 25th anniversary in October was a perfect time to get emotional.
Former longtime volunteer Greg Knepper flew in to commemorate with us from his beautiful home in Tennessee. Greg contracted HIV before the world knew the virus existed. He managed to continue working as an assistant vice president at Rush Presbyterian St. Luke Medical Center here in Chicago (now Rush University Hospital) until he left on disability in 1994.
Walgreens pharmacist Glen Pietrandoni, a TPAN supporter and a friend to both me and Greg, was also there, with his longtime partner, Jason.
Greg reminded me of how sick he was when he first walked into Walgreens the day he met Glen, so ill he could barely walk. That first day, as a total stranger, Glen insisted on giving him a ride home and later, delivered Greg’s medications to his house. Greg started to cry.
“Stop,” I told him, “you’re making me cry.”
At TPAN’s 25th anniversary and today for World AIDS Day, we know that the survival and well-being of so many rested in part on those who went beyond the call of duty.
“Greg came in to the store and it was obvious he was very weak,” Glen told me yesterday. “He just came from the doctor and he needed scripts filled.” Glen paused as he choked up. “He just sat down in the waiting area. He couldn’t even stand up to come to the counter. So I went out to get the prescriptions.”
Greg said he was in disbelief that a pharmacist would come out from behind the counter to ask if he needed help, especially since a long line of customers waited, but when Glen offered to give him a ride home, he said to himself, “This man is a saint.”
“I never thought about it until he came back when he was feeling better and he said …,” Glen paused, choking up again, “it was really important to him to have somebody do that extra little thing.”
Glen amazes me – besides everything else that he is and has done – because he helped convince leaders at Walgreens, a large corporation, to open HIV specialty pharmacies around the country. I was surprised to learn that there are now 600 of them. I remember when there were only three or four, small pharmacies in clinics or organizations serving large numbers of people with HIV.
When Walgreens opened its first HIV specialty pharmacy at Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago, Greg followed. He called the new Walgreens “a blessing.”
“I told everyone, ‘You need to take your drugs from wherever you’re getting them and go to Glen. The pharmacists at Howard Brown will take care of you.’ I had good health insurance, but not everybody does. At another pharmacy, they would just be told that public aid or their insurance refused to pay for their prescription. They all came back and told me they didn’t have to worry because they didn’t jump through this hoop and this hoop and this hoop. Glen and the other pharmacists would do the paperwork and make the phone calls or told them what they needed to do; they made sure people got what they needed.”
Moreover, he said the pharmacy provided a comfortable environment, and “you didn’t feel like a leper going there.”
“We’re here to know the customer and to help,” Glen told me. “Maybe they’re having problems with co-pays or deliveries or interactions, or different docs giving different scripts, or whatever the issues are. Taking care of that is what we do. Our pharmacists also receive intensive training on HIV.
“With a lot of different health situations, it might be okay to get prescriptions through the mail every three months,” Glen said. “We offer delivery and 90-day prescriptions, but with HIV you might be better off getting to know your pharmacist and checking in with them every 30 days. They can see how you’re doing and answer your questions. Maybe you just talk about your dog, but at least you know that there’s somebody there to bounce things off of.”
I asked Glen how he convinced Walgreens to open the chain of HIV specialty pharmacies.
“I started at Howard Brown in ‘96 when we opened our store there. The epidemic was turning around and I knew for a fact that the setting at Howard Brown, which is a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender health center—not a retail store—is the right kind of environment to really get to know people and help them. I thought that if we’re doing such a great job here in this little corner at Irving Park and Sheridan Road, we should be doing this everywhere, in every city.
“I talked about it every chance I got to anyone who would listen,” Glen said, “and eventually someone went to the president of the company about the importance of what we were doing. Now it’s a great thing that we’re doing all over the country.”
Today Greg is strong and healthy, is active in his church, plays fetch with his dogs in the beautiful woods next to his home, and has had more boyfriends than I’ve had.
“When somebody does something like that, you don’t forget them,” he told me. “A lot of people don’t have anyone to stand up for them. I’ve always said that part of my survival is that I was lucky to have good people around me.”
Some of them heroes.
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