“All the unpleasant topics to be avoided at the dinner table—that’s my world of work,” says Renata Dennis ’81, instruction and training coordinator for the Southeast AIDS Training and Education Center, a federally funded program based at Emory University’s Department of Family and Preventative Medicine.
Renata was “thrown into the deep end” of AIDS research in 1999, and currently works on the front lines of public health among professionals caring for HIV-positive patients. She recently joined Wheaton’s Leadership Council, a group formed in 2011, to help students consider God’s calling and make career connections. She looks forward to helping students consider what it means to enter the health professions with a missional mindset.
“My work puts me at the intersection of grace and the world of HIV/AIDS,” she says. “And people talk to me—a safe person.”
Some find personal relief in sharing their secrets—addictions, loved ones with AIDS, or private fears. It is the questions—and the people who ask them—that continue to surprise Renata.
“An elderly, silver-haired lady will strike up a conversation, and I’ll find she knows all the science of HIV and AIDS treatment. Then I’ll talk to someone young who doesn’t know that HIV is not, for example, automatically passed from a mother to her infant.” (Perinatal medication for both mother and newborn, along with avoiding breastfeeding, reduce the chance of a mother passing along HIV from 25 percent to only about 1 percent.)
A biology major at Wheaton, Renata earned a nursing degree from Emory, then took a break from healthcare to fulfill ministry assignments in Germany and Austria. Returning to the United States in the mid-90s, Renata earned a master’s in public health and accepted a position at Grady Hospital’s Infectious Disease Clinic to work with pediatric HIV patients in a National Institute of Health study.
Today countless medical professionals benefit from Renata’s research and expertise. She provides education and training for the “Big Six”—physicians, physician’s assistants, advanced practice nurses, registered nurses, pharmacists, and dental professionals—and helps practitioners set up point-of-care HIV-testing programs, because identifying those infected is crucial to slowing the epidemic.
“Of the 1.2 million people in America infected with HIV, 19 percent don’t know it,” Renata says.
Most people diagnosed as HIV positive take preventive measures, but undiagnosed individuals continue to spread the virus. The good news, Renata says, is that the 19 percent of undiagnosed individuals is down from 25 percent in 2006, thanks in part to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all people ages 13 to 65 be tested. For a decade, quick-response testing has made it possible for clinics to provide same-day results, and now over-the-counter HIV tests are also available.
Involvement with the Minority AIDS Initiative takes Renata outside her usual medical circles to meet with student health center staff, young adults in colleges and universities (a target audience for HIV prevention) and also to Christian groups including a local Catholic coalition and African-American churches, which tend to be “strong influencers in their communities.”
Renata’s faith provides a sure foundation as she speaks to patients or others marginalized by disease or their circumstances.
“I hold fast to my convictions, and I pray,” she says. “I pray a lot—about how to speak into a situation, and about knowing when to listen.”