Crusaders Against HIV and AIDS: Noelle Sewell
Noelle Sewell used her professional career to make a social change in the HIV and AIDS community.
Medical professionals work to improve the lives of their patients, but often the patients can touch the lives of their doctors and nurses in profound ways. This is certainly the case with Noelle Sewell, who serves as a Medical Case Worker at the Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia. Originally a dental hygiene professional, Sewell has been working with people in the HIV community for more than 30 years, helping patients and their families cope with the debilitating diagnosis.
Sewell spoke with Loop21 about her personal experience and her hopeful outlook for the future of HIV and AIDS.
Loop21: What motivated you to work with people who have HIV?
Noelle Sewell: I have to say that my faith was the main motivator. When I started working with the community they did not even have a name for the disease. I was helping a friend that I met at Temple University whose brother was ill. She would go home to New York on the weekends. I would for with her and help her and her mother. During the same time as a student in Temple’s Dental Hygiene program I was fortunate to see that they had created a clinic where they treated people with infectious diseases which included people with GRID (which we now call HIV/AIDS). My parents also motivated and encouraged me to work with the HIV community. My dad especially made me see that this would not just be a potential job/career but a ministry. I am also motivated by the fact that I have the opportunity to see people make changes in their changes in their lives.
Loop21: In addition to your professional work, why did you choose to become involved in the HIV community as an activist?
NS: I saw an opportunity to assist people who were being shunned by society to improve their health and wellbeing. By choosing to work this community I also experienced being rejected by people in the community. In the late 1980’s I experienced by being denied membership at a church in West Philadelphia, for some reason they thought because I worked with the HIV community that I could transmit to the members. Even though I explained HIV doesn’t jump from one person to another through the air, the pastor was still insistent that I join another church. These experiences strengthen my commitment to helping this community.
Loop21: What tools do you use to educate and help people either with HIV or learning about HIV?
NS: It depends on the person and the situation I am dealing with. When educating people I do not just give them the facts about the disease but I try to use things that can relate to. It’s the same when helping people with HIV I use things that they can relate to whether it be sports, music, movies, TV, their career or career interest and/or their faith. I am more likely to get their attention if I use things that they are interested in and they are more likely to retain the information.
Loop21: In what ways do you think people can become more involved in bringing awareness to HIV?
NS: Encourage people to ask questions about HIV. We need to dispel the myths. We need to make sure that people have the facts and that it is not nor ever has been a “Gay White Man’s Disease.” Talk about all the other issues that we don’t want to discuss like substance abuse, mental health, literacy, domestic violence, childhood trauma, incest, sexual assault and yes low self esteem. All these issues affect HIV. I would encourage people who want to be supportive of the HIV to get involved with organizations that assist with prevention and treatment of HIV.
Loop21: What advice would you give to someone who has been diagnosed with HIV?
NS: Take some deep breaths and inform them that HIV is no longer a death sentence. Get assistance with finding a medical provider that will be able to work with you in finding the treatment will best work for you. Evaluate your current situation and use this diagnosis to make changes in your life for the better. Don’t get discouraged. Seek wise counsel. Either you can control the disease or let the disease control you.
Loop21: In the future, what changes do you hope to see happen in the HIV community?
NS: I think we need to change the mindset of the HIV case management system. I would like to see them move from an “I am going to die today” mentality. I know that people with HIV still face a lot of stigma from society. But many in the HIV community stigmatize themselves. If you keep telling yourself you can’t then you won’t. As a case manager I am tough on my clients. I know you are wondering why I am tough, it is because I have to see better in them then they see in themselves. I believe that the cure for the disease could be found by someone living with the disease. This community has so much potential if only they could see it and be willing to work towards it.