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With truth and compassion

With truth and compassion

Patricia Matuszek Drott (BSN '63) works to increase awareness and compassion for those living with HIV/AIDS

By Jenny Kustra-Quinn

When Patricia Matuszek Drott (BSN '63) was working as associate director of Loyola's Student Health Services in the early 90s, no one wanted to talk about HIV/AIDS, much less learn about it. "Everyone assumed it wasn't happening here at Loyola," she recalls. "But it was."

A young man who was HIV-positive came to Student Health Services and said he wanted to help educate his fellow students. Around that time, Pat had two friends pass away from the disease. And as she learned about their experiences and those of the Loyola student, she became aware that little was being done to support those living with HIV/AIDS and address the stigma and misconceptions associated with the disease. Pat took training from American Red Cross and helped launch a series of educational efforts at Loyola. It was the beginning of a new passion for her.

In fact, years later, her experience at Loyola influenced her decision to accept a position as Catholic Charities HIV/AIDS Liaison to the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Pat, who recently received the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing's Spirit of Ignatius Award, worked for 16 years as a public health nurse and nursing supervisor at the Cook County Department of Public Health. She also worked as a visiting nurse and went on to earn her MS in public health nursing at the University of Illinois at Chicago, graduating in 1984. She taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago, North Park University, and the Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing, among others.

Ten years ago, Pat left teaching for the Catholic Charities position, a role that combines her expertise as a nurse, educator, and HIV/AIDS activist. She is a resource to the Cardinal, parishes, and schools, and the Catholic Charities staff. She works to increase awareness, dispel myths, and reduce discrimination. She encourages people to get tested and learn their status. She wrote and produced a DVD called The HIV/AIDS Pandemic and the Christian Response, which was distributed to parishes in English and Spanish. Pat notes that the mandate for the Archdiocese's response to HIV/AIDS came from Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, who was "at the forefront of stimulating education, sustaining awareness, and encouraging compassion amidst all of the fear."

"All of our activities are directed by Catholic social teaching,” Pat says. “I sometimes encounter people who are critical because of teachings of the Church, but, as a nurse, I'm in a unique position. I'm professionally bound to give accurate medical information."

More than 1 million people in the United States are living with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pat says the outlook is different than it was many years ago when that young man approached her about raising awareness. A diagnosis is no longer a definite death sentence.

"There is hope, which is a word that has not been identified with the pandemic in the past," Pat says. "But what has not changed is that we are still fighting the ignorance and the stigma." Although attitudes have evolved over the years, Pat says there are still a lot of misconceptions about HIV/AIDS.

She recalls a dinner out with a friend who asked her, "Why would you want to work with them?" Pat replied, "It's not us and them. It's we."

Pat says her friend's question reflects the attitude that many people continue to have, which is why it's important for the Archdiocese to take a leadership role in promoting understanding. "It's part of our mission as Catholics. We offer compassion to all persons—the vulnerable, marginalized, and poor. In many cases, this includes people living with HIV/AIDS."

Public health has been a focus for Pat since she became a nurse 50 years ago. Caregiving also continues to be a big part of her life. Her husband of 44 years suffered a massive stroke eight years ago, and she is his primary caregiver. Pat, who has two children and six grandchildren, says her varied experiences throughout her career have prepared her for this challenge, as well as difficulties she faces in educating the public about HIV/AIDS.

"It's been quite a journey," she says. "Sometimes it's frustrating and you feel like you're beating your head against the wall. But even if I reach just one person, it's all worthwhile."

Read more stories of outstanding Loyola alumni