Author Archives: Ryder Diaz

How The Stigma of HIV Can Linger and Keep People from Care


Lenworth Poyser (left) works with a colleague at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Poyser is a health educator for a project focused on reaching young, gay men of color who are HIV-positive. (Susan Valot/KQED)

Editor’s Note: Lack of health insurance isn’t the only barrier to getting medical care. The stigma and fear around HIV can keep people from seeking help. As part of our ongoing health series Vital Signs, we hear from Lenworth Poyser. He was homeless and living with HIV. Now, Poyser helps young HIV-positive men support each other through a group at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. 

By Lenworth Poyser

When I first came out, when I was still in Texas, I left my mother’s house. At the time I was 18. What she was basically saying is: You can be in this house, just don’t be gay in this house. And I couldn’t do it. So, I threw my clothes into a trash bag and got out.

My sister had invited me to move out to L.A., move out to L.A. And, when HIV hit, I was like, “Oh, life is too short.” So, I decided to just do it. Continue reading

Working with the Dying in California Prisons


Reverend Lorie Adoff has trained over 130 inmate-volunteers to sit with and support dying prisoners at California Men’s Colony, a minimum- and medium-security prison in San Luis Obispo. After training inmates for eleven years, Adoff retired in 2013. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Editor’s Note: Many people hope to die surrounded by friends and family. But for prison inmates death can be unusually isolating. As part of our ongoing health series called Vital Signs, we hear from retired hospice chaplain Lorie Adoff. More than a decade ago, she helped launch a project called Supportive Care Services at the California Men’s Colony — a prison in San Luis Obispo. The program trained inmates serving life sentences to sit with other men dying behind bars.

By Lorie Adoff

First of all imagine, it’s very, very stark. There is nothing pretty about a hospital in prison. Nothing.

But I have discovered, working with the dying in prison, there is transformation. 

They have the opportunity to have family come and visit them on a limited basis. A lot of times because they’ve been there so long though, they don’t have anybody who it matters whether or not they die in prison. They’ve been in prison for 30 years or 40 years and who cares? So, dying alone is a very, very real situation in prison.

Before Supportive Care Services, there really wasn’t anything in place to be with the dying inmates. Patients who were dying in the hospital would be put in a room. A nurse would check on him periodically, until he died. Continue reading

Giving Birth in Prison: One Woman’s Story


Natasha Smith, 37, plays with her children at her grandfather’s home in Huntington Beach. A unique program allowed Smith to live with her two youngest children while she served a four-year prison sentence. (Susan Valot/KQED)

Editor’s Note: In the past three years, more than 250 California inmates gave birth. Natasha Smith had her youngest daughter, Lydia, while at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla. The mother of four was serving time for drug possession and grand theft. This month, as part of our ongoing health series, Vital Signs, we’re bringing you personal stories of health care behind bars. Smith talks about reuniting with her baby — seven years ago — in a program that lets mothers serve their time outside of prison. There were once several such programs in the state. Now, only one Southern California facility remains. Reporter: Susan Valot

By Natasha Smith

I had a normal delivery, a vaginal delivery, so I got 48 hours. And then at the end of the 48 hours, I had to either arrange for someone to come pick up my child or she would go into the [foster care] system. So, I actually had Lydia’s father’s mother come and pick up the baby. And I didn’t really know her. It was very emotional handing over your baby to somebody you never even met.

You just kind of shut yourself down because it’s too hard to deal with: “Where’s my baby?” You just had a baby and your breasts are leaking. I mean, you’re lactating and everything else but there’s no baby. Continue reading

Life on the Street: Homeless Vietnam Veteran Fights Cancer


John Buckingham, 62, a homeless Vietnam veteran, stands outside of a San Francisco grocery store. He lives on the streets and is fighting cancer. (Nick Arce/KQED)

Editor’s Note: For the nearly three million Americans who served in Vietnam, more likely than death in combat was a post-war life on the street. On a single night in 2013, more than 15,000 homeless Californians were veterans, many of whom served in Vietnam. As part of our ongoing health series called Vital Signs, we’re spending the month hearing from homeless Californians. John Buckingham is a 62-year-old homeless Vietnam vet living with cancer on the streets of San Francisco. He talks to us about his battle with illness. Reporter: Nick Arce

By John Buckingham

You know, I can be walking and all of a sudden I’ll get this real heavy pain in my body. I mean, like an earthquake hitting the ground and my whole body shakes. And then, all of sudden, I won’t feel so hot. I’ll feel like these cold and hot flashes. And I’ll see things.

It’s all because of the war. Because of Agent Orange.

Continue reading

Homeless Woman Grateful for Support She Finds in Her Pet


For the past two years, Kelly Hall, 42, has been homeless, living on the streets of San Francisco with her 7-year-old dog, Olivia. Hall says Olivia is her sole source of emotional support. (Credit: Mark Rogers Photography)

Editor’s Note: The unconditional love of a pet can help people facing some of life’s toughest challenges. After losing her job five years ago, Kelly Hall found herself homeless. She turned to her dog, Olivia, for comfort. Hall says her first night sleeping on the streets was “terrifying”– she was afraid for her safety and worried about surviving the cold. Pets can benefit the mental health of the homeless but keeping these animals healthy can also be a challenge.

As part of our ongoing health series called Vital Signs, we’re spending the month hearing stories from homeless Californians. We meet up with Hall as she has Olivia’s arthritis checked out at a mobile veterinary clinic called VET SOS, a free service for homeless pet owners in San Francisco. She starts off by describing Olivia’s breed.

By Kelly Hall

She’s a dachshund-chihuahua-terrier mix. She weighs 13-pounds.

I would be so lonely without her. I cannot even imagine being homeless and not having a dog with me, or my best friend with me. Especially because I’m the type of person too, I’m a bit of a loner. I go to school. I try to keep to myself, and so she really is my only friend and my only support system.

Continue reading

Homeless and Addicted — Then Overcoming Both


Julie “Jewels” Gates (from Berry Creek, Calif., left) and Elena Wilson (from Oroville, Calif., right) saw jail as a one of the few options for low-income people in Butte County to stop using drugs. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Editor’s Note: For over a year, we’ve been bringing you first-person stories about health. Now, we’re digging deeper. Each month, we’ll be exploring a different health issue and asking diverse community members across the state to share their own stories on that theme. It’s a project we’re calling “Vital Signs.”

This month we look at the health needs of people who are homeless. Accurate statistics on homeless Californians are hard to get, but by some estimates roughly one in four people who are homeless abuse drugs. And homeless people face unique challenges when trying to quit.

Today we hear from Julie Gates and Elena Wilson. The two met seven years ago in Chico. Both women struggled with addiction and Gates, who goes by the nickname “Jewels,” sold drugs to support her own habit. In largely rural Butte County, it was hard for them to find treatment they could afford and were daunted by months-long waiting lists for help. Now clean and sober, the two women volunteer at the Hope Center in Oroville, giving back to the homeless community. They talk to one another about their journey.

By Julie Gates and Elena Wilson

ELENA WILSON: Jewels and I, there were periods of time we didn’t see each other but either at the lowest of out lows, and now, at the highest of our highs, God has brought our paths back together.

JULIE GATES: Absolutely.

WILSON: The last time I had seen her before I got clean, I was acutally kicking heroin in Chico. I was homeless. I was really, really sick. And I didn’t have any money and I couldn’t find any heroin. She went and bought me a pack of cigarettes and gave me a little bit of some methanphetamine to do with, to trade, or whatever. She said she’d try to find me some pills.

Continue reading

Native American Woman Changes Young Lives Through Traditional Dancing

Juliet Small, 19, teaches Native American dance to girls at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Juliet Small, 19, teaches Native American dance to girls at the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. (Zaidee Stavely/KQED)

Editor’s Note: Many Native Americans are reconnecting with the traditions of their ancestors—to eat healthier foods and get more exercise with traditional dance and drumming. At the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland, there’s a weekly dinner with traditional recipes, followed by a community dance. Before dinner, 19-year-old Juliet Small teaches Native American dancing to young girls. As part of our ongoing series of first-person health profiles called “What’s Your Story?” we hear from Small who is Apache, Navajo, Cherokee, and Azteca. She has been dancing since she was three-years-old. Small discusses how dancing has brought healing to her family and community. Reporter: Zaidee Stavely

By Juliet Small

Growing up in the Oakland area, it sometimes seems there’s not a lot of outlets for people to get away from the negative aspects of life. There are always so many things you can get caught up with. You know, hanging out with the wrong people, doing the wrong things with those people. But because I’ve always had dancing, that’s always kept me on the right path, to where I want to dance for myself, to keep up with my culture, and to share my culture with everybody else. And when I dance, I’m extremely happy. No negative thoughts.  I feel light. I feel relieved of stress. Continue reading

Sonoma County Man Learns to Control Anger and Violence


Jon Wheeler, 35, struggled with his own abusive behaviors before finding Men Evolving Non-Violently (M.E.N.). The organization has helped the Occidental resident change his behavior and now he leads support groups for other men.

Editor’s Note: Jon Wheeler used to have a difficult time controlling his anger in romantic relationships. As part of our occasional series, “What’s Your Story?” Wheeler shares how a group in Santa Rosa called Men Evolving Non-Violently, or M.E.N., helped him change his abusive behaviors. Now, he leads those same groups, helping other men who struggle with violent behavior.

By Jon Wheeler

I’d be in a relationship with a woman and whatever was going on in the relationship, I would respond to it with anger. Like, I might even tell you in my words that I’m supporting you, but my tone of voice would say, ‘You’re an idiot and I don’t respect you.’ And I’ve been physically violent with a woman a few times in my life. It has come to that.

I felt guilty for my behavior, and I could see the way that I was acting was driving away a person that I was trying to hold close. Continue reading

Foster Kids Learn About Nutrition, Get Job Training in Oakland Program


Former foster youth, Kawanzza Byrd, is gaining culinary skills and tips on healthy eating through a youth program called GROW Oakland. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Editor’s Note: Project GROW Oakland trains young people to become chefs — to build job skills and healthy eating habits. Some youth are on probation; while others are — or were — in the foster care system. As part of our ongoing series of first-person health profiles called “What’s Your Story?” 19-year-old Kawanzza Byrd, a former foster youth, says the program has changed the way she eats. 

By: Kawanzza Byrd

When you’re in foster care, you really have no control over what you eat. With my partner when she was in foster care, they ate a lot of fast food. Every night. The foster mom, she didn’t cook: She just bought pizza. She bought hot pockets. Continue reading

Woman Finds Relief From Chronic Pain by Caring for Horses

Kaitlyn Pintor visits with horses at Hoof Beats riding school in Petaluma. For the past decade, a nerve disorder has made it painful for her to experience touch. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Kaitlyn Pintor visits with horses at Hoof Beats riding school in Petaluma. For the past decade, a nerve disorder has made it painful for her to experience touch. (Ryder Diaz/KQED)

Editor’s Note: As part of our ongoing series of first-person health profiles called “What’s Your Story?” we hear from Kaitlyn Pintor, whose nerve disorder causes pain so severe that she’s often felt like her body has been set on fire. When the pain started nearly a decade ago, Pintor was a single mother of two. She still found time to organize support groups for people who share her chronic pain disorder. Now, a new medication has made her chronic pain more manageable. Pintor speaks to us from HoofBeats riding school in Sonoma County, where she goes for horse therapy. Reporter: Ryder Diaz.

By Kaitlyn Pintor

In 2004, I was diagnosed with Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy after an ankle sprain. I had burning pain that ended up spreading throughout my body, from head to toe.

It literally feels like you’ve been set on fire and you can’t turn the fire down. Just water brushing over my skin would cause intense flame.

The normal comforts don’t comfort you. You can’t wrap yourself in a blanket. You can’t go soak in the sun. Sounds bother you. Or the laughter of your children may turn your pain up. Continue reading