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Our Stories: Personal Testimonies

Testimonials from former and current drug users document the impact that syringe access programs have had on their lives.

“I first injected in high school. It was a small miracle I didn’t get infected with HIV or hepatitis at that time, since I had no idea where to get sterile syringes in 1992. When I was in college, I found a local underground needle exchange. They helped me kick heroin the first time by checking up on me and referring me to a non-judgemental medical doctor. I was so appreciative that I started volunteering with them. I relapsed many times after that, but continued to volunteer through it all. While I was using, I had access to all the new needles I wanted and used a brand new needle for every hit. Today, I have been clean for 7 years, still do not have HIV or hepatitis, and have a masters degree in public health. I intend to use my MPH to help keep other injection drug users from getting HIV and hepatitis also. Being an injection drug user was a small part of my life and I am forever grateful it didn’t ruin all of it.”

“I am a 56 year old black gay women, who has been shooting heroin since the age of 11. I don’t have HIV or AIDS. I can honestly say it’s because I choose not to share needles. I didn’t have to share needles because I COULD ALWAYS find a harm reduction center where I could get clean new sets. If not for that I believe I would be one of millions with the disease.”

 “I am part of a group that is trying to establish a program in this area. While organizational structure and funding is still being sought, I volunteered and have been actively exchanging syringes for approximately 2 months. I am currently averaging between 150 and 220 rigs per week. Overall the reaction of clients has been positive–they’ve started picking rigs off the streets and abandoned properties and feel that this is now part of their “job”. All have shared stories of friends contracting Hep C, HIV, staph infections and more from reuse and sharing of rigs. All have been appreciative of the service provided and have been telling more and more people to ensure that this program can expand and truly provide for the community.”

“I am a widow because of lack of access to clean syringes, and also medication assisted treatment. My husband died of complications of AIDS due to IV drug use. I have hepatitis C due to unsafe needle use. We contracted these virus’s in the late 1980’s. I used “old” and “borrowed” works all the time, its amazing that I am not HIV positive considering that I live in the City with the worst AIDS rates in the USA. (Washington DC) Safe, affordable, low barrier/no barrier access to needles, and treatment would save lives, and money.”

“Needle exchange has saved the lives of many of my friends by keeping them HIV and hepatitis C negative, by providing them with safer injection education, and by linking them to drug treatment programs. One friend starting injecting at age 14 and stopped using at age 22. He is able to live a full healthy life in large part to the assistance he received from needle exchange programs that gave him nonjudgmental support and education and gave him access to supplies that kept him HIV and hepatitis C negative. His sober life is richer because he does not have to contend with chronic illness. Without needle exchange, his life in his 30s might look very different right now.”

“Needle exchange programs affect me in both my professional and personal lives. I have a sister who is an IDU and she is now Hep C positive. I also work in HIV prevention. Syringe exchange programs work to help people like my sister from contracting and sharing other viruses with each other. Often times IDUs will use unclean works because they may not have access to clean needles. By providing access to clean needles we can lower HIV rates, Hep C rates, and we can decrease money spent on treatment for these very expensive ailments simply by purchasing and exchanging needles.”

“Unfortunately, Needle Exchange didn’t get to me in time; I have HepC, but I help others reduce harm now by acting as a sattelite exchange and outreach worker.” “I am HIV negative despite 18 years of cocaine and heroin injection. There were times that I used needles that were so old, they had no numbers on them. But, for the most part, I lived and used where I had access to sterile syringes. I was well educated,from a privileged background and had the resources to find a way to get to needle exchange. My beautiful young children do not have to live OR DIE with HIV because of my problems, and the way that I used to cope with them.”

“I worked as a nurse practitioner clinician at Oakland’s Casa Segura needle exchange twice a week for two years. My experience working with needle users with many serious concurrent health problems was that they attended the on site clinic regularly and mos were motivated to participate in self care related to their chronic diseases if approached from a nonjudgemental harm reduction perspective. Clients were consistently willing to change risk behavior to prevent transmission of HIV or hepatitis. I learned that through needle exchange projects such as this can function as a gateway for disenfranchised people to establish therapeutic relationships, and engage in effective risk reduction measures that reduce transmission of blood borne and sexually transmitted diseases. It was inspiring to witness that many of these clients became mainstreamed into county primary health care and mental health services including substance abuse treatment. I cannot imagine a more effective and cost effective model of both prevention and extension of health care services to this population.”

“Nine years ago I was a junkie looking for a fix. I found my drug but had no utensil so I went to Walgreens and asked for a bag of needles like I had done countless times before. This day was different. The pharmacist would not sell them to me because I did not have a medical identification card saying I needed them because I was diabetic. No I needed them because I was a junkie, unfortunately ignorance won and I left empty handed. I walked to the dope house and spent the next ten hours sharing a dirty dull bloody needle with two other junkies whom I had never met until that very day. Needless to say six weeks later I was living in a clean and sober house and had graduated from an inpatient treatment program. I received a call from the clinic to come in for some test results. I had Hepatitis C. I do not know whether I got hep from those junkies on that day or if I gave them the disease. I will never know and it doesn’t matter because if a clean needles is not available to an addict and they need their fix they will and do share…no matter.”

“It has kept friends alive who would otherwise be dead. I have a friend who got an abscess and had to have part of her arm cut out. If she’d had had access to a clean needle, perhaps she’d still have that part of her arm. In any case though, it was needle exchange that eventually helped her get her life back together. She became an outreach worker, and then an incredible motivational speaker.”

“Needle exchange was the begining of my recovery. I was a participant at Prevention Point Philadelphia for 7 or 8 years before I reached a point of being ready to stop using. On December 12, 2007 I will be celebrating 10 years without using drugs! In May 2008 I will graduate with a Masters Degree in Social Work. I had been homeless and jobless for more than 15 years in my addiction. This is a miracle and harm reduction was the begining of my recovery!!!”

“I work with HIV+ Asians and Pacific Islanders. Many of our clients are currently addicted to heroin. For our clients, needle exchanage programs provide the most effective means of reducing the risk of HIV infection via intravenous drug use. They also serve as gatways to substance abuse treatment and methadone maintenance programs.”

“It has prevented me from using dirty needles. It has educated me about harm reduction and reduced my shame around recreational drug use by providing me with information on reducing the risk of infection, regular testing and making informed decisions around drug use; whereas I may have otherwise used dirty works because I not aware that clean works are obtainable and are paramount in the reduction of harm and infection. It has provided me with information on how to set guidelines around usage, what is more harmful when using, and how to take care of myself and others when using. It is a real program with an option of regulating usage when other programs based upon abstinence only lead to feelings of failure and shame when I was unable to adhere. I find harm reduction a behavioral modification that helps one set up realistic goals and procedures (around using) rather than abstinence based behavioral modification therapies because it allows me to be honest with myself and others in regulating usage. It has allowed me to educate myself so that I make informed decisions and provides a resource to find answers to questions which i otherwise would not be able to ask. Information is key when reducing harm; allows for inquiry so that realistic goals and procedures may be adhered to when using. It is a resource which arms one with knowledge which I otherwise would be ignorant of, therefore using without knowledge on how to reduce infection, maitaining healthful practices rather than ignoring them, and how to make sure my body get what it needs if I choose to use.”

“I was able to be clean while using, and was introduced to a 21 day detox that the exchange funded and have been drug free sence the day i finished the detox. I now have 8 years clean and have had a full time job sence then. Thank God for the exchange and all the people that helped save my life.”

“I used the needle exchange for many years. It kept me safer and healthier than before I used it. I was also able to avoid getting hep C, which was a miracle in and of itself. Already being HIV positive, I didn’t want the additional burden of having HCV. As a public health program, needle exchange has an extraordinary impact. It kept me out of the public health system much of the time, easing the burden on the city’s health system, because i wasn’t getting sick as often, wasn’t reinfecting other people by sharing supplies. and was practicing harm reduction principles. Eventually I went into a harm reduction program, which weaned me off of drugs. I am so grateful for the exchange that I began volunteering with the local needle exchange program of the SFAF and have done so for 18 great months. I am able to now give back to the people and the organization that helped me in the past. It’s a great feeling. Thank you!”

“ive come close to sharing needles with two people who were hiv positive, and one who is hep c positive, but luckily i had the blessing of getting a clean needle. I also have been saved from disasters that i did not know about including infections, cotton fever, rotating, never sharing, bleaching. I also obtain sterile wipes and anti biotic ointment to hinder infections, and talking openly about my using is helping me quit. The harm reduction model is the most common sense model available, i would have died if needle exchange or the harm reduction philosophy had not been brought to my attention. these programs need to be more praised because of their help!”

“As a long time volunteer, I have continually witnessed the profound and direct impact that syringe exchange has on the lives and well-being of participants. The syringe exchange is a place for education, outreach and intervention that has been proven time and time both effective and necessary to prevent the risks involved with injection drug use. The sense of relief and gratitude from the participants demonstrates to me the efficacy and importance of syringe exchange more than anything else. The success stories are too numerous to recount. My experience with syringe exchange has demonstrated to me the importance and power of sound public health policies and is the impetus for my decision to pursue public health policy as a profession.”

“I was a heroin user for three years with my partner. Because of needle exchange we never had share needles not even with each other let alone with our community of addicts. The people at exchange helped us to use safely and talked with us about treatment when we were ready. Because of them we were able to quit with knowledge about what was going to happen and how to make a plan for stopping. We were never arrested so we didn’t want to go to detox (why get our names on the books at that point) so they pointed us to natural paths other resources to make it a little easier. We have been clean for five years and I know that the support from the worker was what helped us get here.”

“The needle exchange program has removed some of the shame I would typically associate with being an I/V drug user. It has assuredly kept me from opting for used needles, thus reducing my risk of diseases. The “support equipment,” like the alcohol swabs, saline water viles, and cotton filters given with the exchange, helps me be a safer user. And the “limited purchase” of needles in San Francisco through companies, like Walgreen’s, who support safer practices, is also a positive community service. These two programs make it possible for me to acquire safer equipment almost anytime, in a environment that is non-judgmental and caring.”

“The youth that I serve benefit greatly from the needle exchange program. Many of them got HIV from using shared needles that could have been prevented from an effective needle exchange. Now that there is a needle exchange they can prevent others from suffering their own fate and keep themselves as safe as possible without contracting other diseases and more drug-resistant forms of HIV. We need to give people options and this is a better option than telling them to either use dirty needles or stay clean. We need to give these people a middle ground so that while they still use drugs they can be safe and not cause more harm to themselves and give them a path to live a healthier and maybe drug free lifestyle.”

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