Everyone can benefit from healthy eating. If you’re living with HIV, proper nutrition is especially important to your health.
National Nutrition Month: Put Your Best Fork Forward challenges us all to make small steps toward healthier food choices. If you have HIV, certain conditions, HIV treatment and nutrition can affect your body, immune system and comfort. You must consistently eat well to keep your immune system strong and prevent and control other infections.
At EPIC, we provide specialized care, education and support services to help our HIV clients live healthy, long lives. Maintaining daily treatment, clean living environments, good hygiene, food safety and nutritional diets are key.
Clinical Dietitian in HIV Care
Dee Prendergast works as a clinical dietitian consultant for St. Joseph Hospital Tampa Care Clinic and St. Anthony Hospital Pinellas Care Clinic (PCC). Both clinics specialize in caring for patients with HIV. Prendergast, PCC primary care physicians and Empath Health pharmacy staff serve clients at our Home 3050 medical home on our one-stop campus in St. Petersburg. Our campus offers many services including pharmacy, case management, counseling, support groups and a food and personal needs pantry.
A longtime expert in HIV dietary needs, Prendergast holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in clinical dietetics. She got her start at St. Joseph’s in dietary care in the areas of pediatrics, diabetes and surgery, went back to school, worked at St. Anthony’s and Bayfront Medical Center, relocated to New Orleans and then returned to where she started.
“When I came back, St. Joseph’s needed someone to work in their Tampa Care Clinic. I started at eight hours a week and I’m still there after 19 years,” Prendergast said.
Educating about HIV, Diet and Health
Our EPIC clients come in with different stages of HIV and individual needs for education and support.
“I try to see as many people as possible and address basic nutrition to get them to eat healthier so they feel better. Some people just need a nutrition tune-up or are trying to lose weight and I see them every month to work on next phases; some need a lot of help and I see them regularly; and others I see once a year to touch base. If they’re taking their meds, mainly I use the My Plate model for eating balanced meals. If they’re newly diagnosed and very ill, I work with them more closely in the beginning to create a high-caloric and protein diet,” she explained.
Those with HIV are at risk for other chronic health conditions. She shared, “I address diabetes, cardiac, weight, anemia and other issues. A lot of people end up with diabetes and high blood pressure, but that’s the same with the general population because of our poor diets and lack of exercise. Years ago, we saw a lot more problems with diabetes and cholesterol because of the meds, but they’ve all improved. There’s a theory that your body ages quicker with HIV. There’s so much out there that’s not good for us and the lack of activity can give everyone problems. If we can get people to eat more balanced meals in smaller portions we could see better outcomes.
In addition to nutrition education and planning, Prendergast looks to meet clients’ other needs. “If they have a problem obtaining adequate food, we can send them to our case management programs to help them access our pantries or other resources. Whatever they need, that’s where I go. It varies with everybody.”
Food and Personal Needs
EPIC serves more than 2,000 clients each year, many whom struggle to afford the basic necessities in life that can keep them living healthy. They rely on our support, including food, hygiene and cleaning items from our pantries, meals at our Tampa day center or clothing and household items from the Suncoast Hospice Resale Shoppes.
Helping run the pantries is EPIC volunteer coordinator Christopher Ramos. The pantries are supported by the community, including donated items, funding and volunteer assistance.
“Many of our clients have families and our supplies each month make a difference. Clients are grateful that they can pick the items they really need. The most needed are personal items, such as paper towels, toilet paper, tooth paste, tooth brushes, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, feminine products, laundry detergent and other cleaning supplies. These items can’t be purchased with food stamps and they go fast. We also occasionally receive donated bread, frozen items, produce, milk, eggs and other fresh food,” Ramos explained.
Healthy food choices are recommended by Prendergast. “I recommend the staples like brown rice, beans, peanut butter and canned tuna, meats, vegetables and fruit. The fresh produce, breads and other items are a big help, too. Ideally, it’d be great if we could have lots of fresh fruits, veggies, meat and chicken. Maybe someday we’ll start a garden,” she said.
The community’s ongoing support is always welcome and appreciated. “The community remains generous. There are food drives/collections by organizations, businesses, churches, schools and individuals, the Letter Carriers Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive and many EPIC and community fundraising events. The high points of giving tend to be during the winter holidays season and low points during summertime. We’re thankful to everyone who gives and volunteers. It’s my deepest honor to serve our clients in this capacity,” Ramos said.
Prendergast values the team collaboration to provide seamless care and support for clients and families. She shared, “I like the continuity of care at EPIC. In the hospitals, you often see patients and then they’re discharged and you never see them again. Here, we don’t have to accomplish everything in one visit with our clients; we can follow up with them. Our team meets and discusses difficult scenarios and makes sure we’re all on the same page doing what’s best for our clients. If I don’t understand something, there’s always someone who can help me sort it out or we can call the case managers if we need additional help. We all work together and that’s good.”
Having all services on one campus benefits clients, she added. “The clients tell us how great it is to have the pantry, counseling and support groups next door to our medical home. At the support groups, they can get their lunch and social support and feel that people care about them. They’re more likely to come to their appointments if they can accomplish several things at one time, especially if they were dropped off or took bus rides. We have great teamwork and resources.”
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