When Dr. Craig Charles began diagnosing HIV cases seven years ago, patients often greeted his words with gloom and helplessness, figuring they had only a few, painful years left to live.
In the time since, conversations with the doctor have changed immeasurably. Advances in medicine and treatment are transforming the AIDS culture in a way many people still don't realize.
"They thought it was about a 10-year life span with a death sentence at the end," recalled Charles, an infectious disease specialist based in Rock Hill. "With treatment, that's totally changed. I can actually show them the hope. There's always this initial shock when I tell people how positive the outlook can be if we all work together."
Now, the same sentiment might describe the future of the Catawba Care Coalition, the Rock Hill nonprofit where Charles works.
Group eyes new building
A residential developer, Bill Hargrove of Rock Hill, stunned the agency in December with an offer that most nonprofits can only dream about: Vacant land suitable for a new building.
"It was like an angel dropped out of the sky for us," said Michael Laessle of Fort Mill, a board member and the agency's biggest donor. "This is just going to open up so many doors."
When they meet today for the first time since the deal was finalized, Catawba Care board members will begin charting a future suddenly rich with possibilities. Their ultimate goal is a new, facility on the 1.6-acre property, situated in Rock Hill's medical corridor near Piedmont Medical Center.
It could serve as a model for HIV and AIDS care in South Carolina, a state notoriously slow to respond to the disease. It could also help York, Chester and Lancaster counties keep pace with the growing number of patients maintaining healthier lives but who require more medical care as a result of living longer.
"In the 1980s, they told you to write your will and get ready to die," said a 44-year-old person living with HIV in Rock Hill who asked not to be identified. "The state of medicine right now has progressed beyond that. I have friends now who are long-term survivors.
"I'm still putting money away into a retirement account because I'm going to need it."
Such attitudes are taking hold among survivors across the country. The number of people 50 and older living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, increased 77 percent between 2001 and 2005, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control.
The trend is playing out at Catawba Care's Christopher Clinic on Camden Avenue, where 408 patients were treated last year -- up from 379 in 2006.
"We actually have a few geriatric patients nowadays," said Charles, who treats patients two days a week in addition to his other duties at Piedmont Medical Center. "It was something that was almost never seen back in my training days. We've seen older people contract it, and we're able to keep them alive."
Since its inception in 1994, Catawba Care has maintained a relatively low profile, relying on government money and a small group of donors to expand inside a small, maze-like building.
With the donation completed, board members now are eyeing a different approach.
They expect to soon consider launching a fundraising drive for a new building and want to continue a public relations push to educate more people about what they do, particularly in the Hispanic community.
The board leaves open the possibility of selling or simply holding onto the property, valued at $400,000. Whatever happens, members believe the land will provide a stature that nonprofits need to win over otherwise reluctant donors.
"This is really a new era for us," Laessle said. "We're going to get a lot more people interested because we're stable, we've got solid financial standing. From that point of view, more people are going to be willing to come forward."
Hargrove, the developer who donated the land, has no particular connection to AIDS, but says he welcomed the opportunity to meet a need.
Hargrove learned about the clinic through Realtor John Rinehart, who was helping the board look for existing office space around town. A Rock Hill native, Hargrove played on Winthrop University's first varsity men's tennis team in 1978 and years later coached a number of sports teams at Westminster Catawba Christian School, where his two children graduated.
"We've been blessed, and that was just an opportunity we had to give something back," Hargrove said. "It's just something that worked out for us."
Other places in South Carolina haven't been as fortunate. The only similar one-stop clinic is in Florence, and many patients must drive long distances to get care.
Until last year, more than 250 poor people in South Carolina had their names on a waiting list for life-saving drugs, by far the longest list in the country. The state Legislature committed less money to drug programs than most other states, but South Carolina has the nation's ninth-highest AIDS rate.
In June, lawmakers approved $3 million annually and a one-time amount of $1 million for an expanded drug program. Since then, the waiting list has been cleared. But the needs aren't going away.
"We don't want to be the anonymous clinic," said Anita Case, director of Catawba Care. "We want people to know we're here and that HIV patients are living in our area."
As the 44-year-old living with HIV in Rock Hill put it, "I want to enjoy life, play golf and grow tomatoes."
Now, the survivor has added one more item to the list: To be at the ribbon-cutting ceremony when Catawba Care opens a new building in a few years.