Helping those who are most in need

Saturday, January 14, 2017 - Updated: 7:00 am
By William Cone Editor

His Catholic faith led Sean DeYoung to an occupation that focuses on helping people.

With an undergraduate degree from St. Francis University in Loretto and a master’s in social work from Florida International University in Miami, he worked in behavioral health and foster care in Florida and Pennsylvania.

Moving to Pittsburgh in 2003, he had jobs in local social service agencies, starting as a therapist, then moving into leadership roles.

In early 2015, DeYoung was approached by the nonprofit Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force to have a conversation about program quality since he was director of program quality and compliance for FamilyLinks.

Shortly afterward, when PATF changed its structure to be led by a chief executive officer, DeYoung decided to throw his hat in the ring and got the job.

Medical progress

PATF was founded in 1985 essentially as an organization to help AIDS patients die, offering end-of-life care and legal services, he said.

By the early 1990s, some of the stigma about HIV started to fade, as people realized it wasn’t spread by ordinary contact and that it wasn’t a judgment against gay men — the first group in which the disease had been identified. With funding from the federal government and other sources, PATF progressively began doing medical case management, emergency financial assistance, housing assistance, pro-bono legal services and operating a food pantry.

“I knew that they were moving toward integrated care, and as a social worker integrated care is where social work is moving,” said DeYoung, 43, who began at PATF in October 2015. “All of the health systems want to see that because people are more likely to engage in care if they’re getting other services there as well.”

He was excited about that prospect, and he made a lot of changes in his first year with PATF, streamlining processes, hiring their first human resources director, the medical staff, a new development director and chief financial officer.

PATF also completed a $1 million renovation of its facility on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood in October 2016. The project included a medical clinic, expanded pharmacy program, enlarged food pantry, blood testing center and space for behavioral health care.

“We medically case manage over 700 individuals living with HIV in our region,” DeYoung said. “Most of them are here in Allegheny County, but they come in frequently for food or to see their case managers, so we were able to build some space for our case managers to meet privately with their folks, which is really awesome.

“In our mind, our main focus is still HIV, but we want to be a primary care physician for our folks,” said DeYoung, who lives with his wife and daughter in South Park Township.

“Ongoing spiritual healing”

Because of his work and being a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Bethel Park, he is well aware of the Catholic Church’s health care efforts. After Bishop David Zubik showed up about a year ago at Villa Maria in Lawrence County during PATF’s Healing Weekend — which offers clients educational workshops and relaxation activities — the organization received a letter from the bishop expressing openness to assisting PATF in the future.

Since then, DeYoung met with Anna Torrance, diocesan secretary for external affairs, who facilitated contact between PATF and the Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center in Downtown Pittsburgh.

“They’re doing amazing work down there,” he said. “I was just completely blown away by the breadth of services there. It’s really inspired me to look into having dental here someday.”

The diocese was a co-sponsor of the first residential care facility for AIDS patients in western Pennsylvania more than 20 years ago.

“The church is here to help those with AIDS, not to judge them,” Bishop Zubik said recently. He recalled a photo of Pope John Paul II meeting with AIDS patients in San Francisco in 1987, literally embracing them at a time many people were afraid to go near those with the disease.

“Today, thanks to the attention and care of the medical community, many AIDS patients have become survivors,” the bishop said.

“Similarly, the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force has psychologically and socially helped those diagnosed with AIDS. Likewise, the Church of Pittsburgh is committed to ongoing spiritual healing for AIDS patients, survivors and their loved ones.”

A strong Catholic faith helps DeYoung cope with the stresses involved in an area of social work in which clients often die from AIDS or closely related diseases.

“It’s very impactful psychologically. The term in the social work industry is ‘vicarious traumatization.’ It’s sort of a side effect of doing this work because we absorb what our clients are putting out there,” he said.

“So you need to take care of yourself, and for me my faith really helps me with that. We have challenges, and knowing that I can go to church, I can talk to my pastor, pray, that really, really helps me.”

People at risk

One of the challenges that case managers encounter daily is that HIV is a preventable disease, but there are 130 to 150 new cases every year in the Pittsburgh region. The disease is most commonly spread by sex and by drug users who share needles. The populations most at risk are gay men younger than 25 — especially if they are black or Latino — and heterosexual black women.

“The disease, you can’t get it from kissing,” DeYoung said. “There was all that misinformation back in the ‘90s about that.”

The current estimate is that about 3,800 people in the region are living with HIV, which means many people aren’t willing to be treated because of the social stigma.

PATF treats all sexually transmitted diseases, but one that is at epidemic proportions is hepatitis C, which can lead to serious liver conditions. DeYoung said about 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, but the most deadly blood-borne pathogen is hepatitis C.

“The scary thing about hepatitis C is people can live a long time with the disease without it manifesting itself,” he said. “It’s a very challenging proposition when you may have contracted this in the ‘70s and now your liver is starting to shut down.”

The good thing is that hepatitis C can be treated and eradicated through medication. With HIV, despite great advances in care, there is still no cure or vaccine.

With PATF’s clinic now open, DeYoung expects the case management numbers to rise, and he can’t wait to see how the agency is doing in a year.

For information on PATF, call 888-204-8821, email patfinfo@patf.org or check out their website at patf.org.

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