Atlanta (CNN) -- Marianne Swanson closes her eyes, with smoky gray circles beneath her long lashes, as she counts the number of pills she takes every day for HIV: "One, two, three, four" in the morning, and three more at night.
They're drugs she'll need to take for life because of a virus that her late husband gave her in the 1980s, at a time when scientists were just beginning to understand AIDS. The disease claimed her husband's life, as well as two of her children.
Today, as a nurse educator at Grady Health System's Ponce De Leon Center in Atlanta, Swanson tells patients about her personal struggle with AIDS only if she thinks it will help them.
"It's not about me, it's about them," said Swanson, 55, "and helping them to be successful so that they can dream and reach the goals they would set for themselves."
One of the largest and most comprehensive HIV care centers in the country, the Ponce clinic has about 160 employees for 5,100 patients; that's one staffer per 32 patients. The patient base is expanding, and no one who meets the clinic's eligibility requirements gets turned away.
More than 70% of HIV-infected patients who live in Atlanta live within two miles of the clinic, according to the Georgia Department of Human Resources. There's also cutting-edge medical research in conjunction with the clinic, in addition to a variety of services -- from housing assistance to dentistry -- available to patients.
"People come here with a unified vision to take care of people no one else wants to take care of," said Dr. Vincent Marconi, 37, associate medical director of the clinic. "You're here not for the money, here not for the fame, but you're here purely to roll your sleeves up."
Patients get referred through health care providers and agencies, including community and faith-based organizations. But there are still many people living with AIDS in Atlanta whom the clinic has not yet been able to get into treatment, said Marconi, who is also affiliated with the Emory University School of Medicine and the Emory Center for AIDS Research. It will take larger efforts to improve patients' linkage to care, public awareness, and the many factors that make HIV transmission such a problem in Atlanta.
Poverty and drug use in Atlanta help make it the 8th highest metropolitan area in the country for new AIDS diagnoses, Marconi said. About 22% of people in the city of Atlanta have an income below the poverty level. In the 28-county metropolitan area that includes Atlanta, there are nearly 27,000 people living with HIV/AIDS, according to a 2010 report by the Georgia Department of Human Resources. In fact, this metro area represents 67% of Georgia's HIV/AIDS cases, the report said.
A large cluster, centralized in downtown and creeping outward in Fulton and DeKalb counties, represents 60% of prevalent HIV cases in the Atlanta metro area, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Urban Health.
Within that cluster, 1.34% of the population has HIV, compared to 0.32% outside the cluster. The study found higher levels of poverty, injection drug use, and men having sex with men in the cluster than in the rest of Atlanta. HIV-positive men were more likely to live there than HIV-positive women, who likely acquired the disease from heterosexual contact.
HIV cases in this area were 78% male and 72% African-American, with 22% being Caucasian. The largest exposure categories were men who have sex with men (42%) and IV drug users (10%).
The clinic treats some of the sickest people in the area living with HIV. Adults who get treatment at the Ponce Center must have a previous AIDS diagnosis or a CD4 count that has dipped below 200. CD4 is a measure of white blood cells available to fight infection, and a count below 200 means the patient has AIDS. Dr. Wendy Armstrong, the clinic's medical director, said the current recommendation is for anyone with a CD4 count below 500 to get medications -- in fact, some say everyone with HIV should be on medication -- which means the clinic can't treat thousands more who need help.
"Systemically, nationwide, we are identifying people too late," Armstrong said.
It's hard to get enough money to do all that the clinic would like to do. "We are pretty much stretched to the seams," said Armstrong, who is also an associate professor of infectious disease at Emory University School of Medicine and an investigator in the Emory Center for AIDS research.
The clinic received $11.8 million in grant funding, federal and state, for the current fiscal year, representing about 65% of the operating budget, according to interim director Jacqueline Muther. Much of the federal funding comes through the Ryan White CARE Act, whose support to the clinic has been flat for years and recently declined, Armstrong said.
Limited Ryan White funding nationally makes it difficult for many patients to get medications; those who don't have coverage from Ryan White or their own insurance face costs of $1,500 to $2,000 a month for medications.
With more capital, the clinic could expand -- in fact, there are two undeveloped floors that have been too expensive to renovate -- but there also needs to be social change to curb transmission in the first place, Marconi said.
"My biggest frustration is that there's not enough hours in a day to take care of all that needs to be done. These people are very needy," said Lane Tatman, 56, a triage nurse who also has HIV himself. "A lot of them are homeless, have a mental illness, substance abuse (problems) and HIV and hepatitis C, and that's overwhelming to them."
First they have to get there
The clinic first began in 1986 but moved to its present location in 1993. It's an unpretentious gray building on a busy avenue that's convenient to downtown -- if you have a car. If you don't, it can be tricky.
The clinic serves 20 counties throughout the Atlanta's extended metro area, but the city's bus and train transportation system MARTA serves only two -- Fulton and DeKalb -- almost exclusively. The transportation system has been mired in budget woes for years; it receives no state funding for operations, according to MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris.
If the weather's nice, your best bet is to take the MARTA train to the North Avenue station and walk a little under a mile along the less-than-glamorous Ponce De Leon Ave. The gaudy Krispy Kreme doughnut sign is the best landmark; "AIDS clinic" is not written in big letters. You might miss it if you don't look up to the top of the grassy hill. or see the small Ponce De Leon Center sign by the driveway.
But that's assuming you're able to walk, and feel well enough. Otherwise, you might wait up to 50 minutes for a bus. And you have to pay the $2.50 fare. Patients who make their appointments at the clinic can receive free MARTA cards to get home, Swanson said, but they still have to get to the clinic in the first place.
Samuel, whose name has been changed at his request to protect his privacy, is one of those patients who has had transportation challenges. He's unemployed, 28, African-American, and got HIV from his ex-boyfriend, whom he didn't know had HIV. To get to the clinic by MARTA, he needs to take a bus to a train to another bus, a process that takes about an hour if timed properly. Sometimes his mother takes him. Sometimes he just can't get there.
So it's no surprise that patients show up late, throwing Swanson into a panic. She sees eight or nine patients in a day, and she has to review a lot of important information with each of them. To ease the transportation burden, she tries to schedule appointments with patients on the same day that they are using the clinic's other services, such as mental health, nutrition, dentistry and housing assistance.
"We try to bundle services, try to get as much done during one appointment," she said.
A typical day
If patients can get to the clinic, get prescriptions for medications and learn how to use them, the next obstacle is actually taking the drugs.
By taking medications properly, it's possible for patients to get their viral loads down to undetectable levels, which lowers the likelihood of transmission. Research from 2011 showed that taking HIV drugs immediately led to a 96.3% reduction in transmission of HIV to a partner who is not HIV-positive. Some people come to the clinic too late in the disease, or with illnesses that make it difficult to restore health, but there is always hope, Armstrong said.
Regardless, it can be hard to get patients to follow their drug regimen. Complications such as mental illness and substance abuse can interrupt medication-taking routines, Armstrong said. In fact, Swanson suspects many patients lie about not missing doses of their medication, perhaps out of shame or fear.
Swanson was the only nurse educator in the main clinic during the three workdays the week of Thanksgiving (it was closed on Thursday and Friday) and saw a lot of sick patients. On Tuesday, one of them was admitted to the hospital, someone else needed a follow-up appointment, and at least two had severe mental illnesses.
One patient she saw, isn't taking his medications. At the previous appointment, she had talked to him about disclosure issues, telling him he needs to be fair and reveal to his sexual partner that he has HIV. This time, he told her he's still having unprotected sex. Swanson reminded the patient that he is putting his partner at risk.
"All I can do is counsel him to take every pill, every dose, every day," she said. She also wrote on the discharge paperwork that he should encourage his partner to wear a condom.
By the afternoon she was exhausted.
While Swanson educates patients on their medications, Tatman plays the part of concierge, directing people where they need to go.
These days, almost everyone Tatman sees coming to the clinic has a cold and is worried it's going to turn into something more serious like pneumonia or bronchitis. Some patients do require more involved attention; others just "need a pat on the head," he said.
But there are plenty of things for Tatman and staff to consider: For instance, HIV patients can't just grab any over-the-counter medication; they need to watch out for interactions and side effects. And if the patient has a dry cough, it could be tuberculosis. There's currently an outbreak of TB among homeless people on Pine Street, which isn't far south from the clinic itself. All patients get tested for TB at least twice a year at the clinic.
Sick, but spoiled
Tatman commonly confronts patients who have very different goals for themselves than their doctors do. The clinic staff wants patients to get on medications and stick with them and follow up with appointments. Patients want to know where they're going to sleep and what they're going to eat.
"The sad thing is that there's no stopping this epidemic. It's worse than ever. We have a lot of very young people," said Tatman. "More and more African-Americans. People are coming to us sicker than ever."
Yet patients at the clinic are also "spoiled," Tatman says, compared to the 1980s when he got his diagnosis.
Tatman remembers that when he was in his 20s and found out he had HIV, three doctors told him "I have nothing to give you, go home and die." Today, there are many options for medications, including a single pill per day for patients whose bodies can take it.
Tatman has been at the clinic for 13 years; he came because when good medicines for HIV came on the market, he wanted to help people live. He'd watched many of his friends and co-workers die; the other surviving member of the staff of a restaurant he used to work at is still a patient at the clinic.
Like Swanson, he doesn't share his story unless he thinks it will help give a patient or a patient's family member hope. He remembers that the week he found out he had developed diabetes from HIV, he also had two patients with newly diagnosed diabetes. They all learned together how to use their blood glucose meters.
"The cool thing in this building is that everyone wants to be here to work with HIV," he said. "At other places, people don't want to deal with it."
From tragedy to hope
Tatman and Swanson are more the exception than the rule -- most people who work at the clinic are not HIV-positive themselves, although those that are discuss it publicly. There are also three peer counselors living with HIV who are tasked with helping patients navigate the health care system and their personal lives.
"In general, having staff members who are (HIV-)positive provides a genuine relationship between patients and providers -- this relationship is built in part out of real empathy. It also provides the staff with a different perspective for people living with HIV," Marconi said.