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Dan Uhler: Recovering lives, one person at a time

Posted: December 23rd, 2016 | Columns, Featured, Profiles in Advocacy | No Comments

Profiles in Advocacy | Ian Morton

My December “Profiles in Advocacy” column is always special to me, in that it marks the anniversary of my foray into celebrating San Diego’s local advocacy heroes.

My very first interview was Liz Brosnan-Johnson, then the executive director of Christie’s Place and the 2011 A. Brad Truax award winner, for her work in HIV advocacy.

This has become my “World AIDS Month” tradition to profile the Truax winner, and I am so happy to feature the 2016 awardee, Dan Uhler, ‎intervention specialist and lead HIV prevention planner with the San Diego County HIV, STD and Hepatitis Branch of Public Health.

Dan Uhler holds his 2016 Truax awards, one made by himself. (Photo by Vanessa Dubois/Courtesy SDPix)

For those not yet aware, this award is named for the physician activist, Dr. A. Brad Truax, and recognizes a person who has practiced consistent and ardent advocacy in the field of HIV/AIDS.

Dan’s work in the field of HIV spans nearly 40 years, having begun in 1988 while he was in Rochester, New York, and primarily working with injection drug users (IDU). This started a pattern of him “meeting people where they were,” both figuratively and geographically, as his interactions often took place on the street or in “shoot-up” houses.

In addition to his outreach work, Dan was also engaged with the New York “Act Up” branch, which took him to the steps of the National Institutes of Health as an activist for HIV/AIDS funding.

In 1990, Dan received his own HIV diagnosis; he then became sober and began facilitating support groups for the HIV and recovery populations. In 1992, he became a licensed substance abuse therapist and the “go-to” for HIV-positive clients at the mental health/substance abuse dual-diagnosis clinic at which he worked.

In the early 2000s, Dan began his trek west, first with a brief stay in Las Vegas, where he had his first opportunity to sit on an HIV Planning Council, and then to San Diego in 2002. His first months in San Diego were dedicated to addressing a much-needed focus on his own health; however, before long he found himself getting back to his roots, with a position at Stepping Stone in their Positive Support Services, doing outreach to the IDU population.

It was during this period that Dan found himself exploring and pushing the envelope with regards to what “harm reduction” meant in terms of individuals living with both HIV and addiction challenges.

Again, focusing on “meeting people where they were,” he realized that sometimes the first step wasn’t stopping substance use, but helping individuals adhere to their treatment concurrent with their drug use. He stresses the importance of understanding “recovery readiness” and that often, at the time of an individual’s first meeting with a recovery counselor, they may not truly be able to quit. These are the opportunities when a counselor can explore the “baby-steps” toward better health practices and eventual clean and sober living.

Dan brought this mindset to subsequent positions, as a community health program manager at UC San Diego’s research program, and to the San Diego County HIV, STD and Hepatitis Branch of Public Health, where he has worked since 2007.

I had an opportunity to speak with Terry Cunningham, the former chief of that department — as well as a Truax award committee member and past awardee — who explained why Dan was the committee’s unanimous choice for the 2016 award.

“Dan has been a solid, steady voice for both HIV prevention and recovery for the past three decades,” Cunningham said. “His work in San Diego has informed organizations about the interaction of substance abuse and HIV to more effectively stop the spread of both diseases. Dan’s expertise has earned him the respect of his peers. His opinions and actions have helped shape HIV prevention efforts not only in San Diego, but also across the country.”

In addition to being an HIV advocate, Dan is also a stained-glass artist, and has been commissioned to create the Truax award for the past eight years.

Uhler has designed the Truax award for eight years; this year’s award, which he received himself, represents all the different eras of the AIDS/HIV crisis. (Courtesy Ian Morton)

As a nominee, he was not aware that he would be receiving his own piece of art until the day of the event. When he reflects upon his work, he sees how his vision for this year’s award has been mirrored by his own experience.

“The award that I designed this year probably has the most meaning for me,” he said. “It was a deliberate and organic process, without any tweaks and I felt as though I knew what it meant from the beginning.

“The stack of stained glass boxes each represent eras in the decades during which we’ve been fighting HIV,” he continued. “Elements I chose to embody these time frames include the black glass which represents the dark early years, mirrored glass during the time in which we saw ourselves reflected in the HIV community, to the clear glass at the top that represents the optimism that, with clarity and purpose, we will defeat this disease.”

Dan’s current work includes the “Why Not?” campaign, envisioned as a social media forum to get back to the basics.

With the passage of time and the advances in HIV medications and treatments, HIV/AIDS often does not have the same relevance for the current generation. Hence the open-ended, and sometimes controversial question, “Why not get HIV?,” is a jumping off point to reengage those discussions. Started as a closed Facebook group, the Why Not outreach team can now be found at venues like CityFest and San Diego’s regional LGBTQ Pride festivals, engaging in face-to-face conversations and creating a space where individuals can ask the hard questions.

Dan sees a future where new HIV infections are a rarity, if seen at all. He has lived through the worst part of the AIDS epidemic and can see the positive side of what this disease has brought to our social consciousness.

“This disease and what it’s done to both the gay community and the community at large has been insane and magnificent on some levels,” he opined. “It has caused us to pay attention and to come together with this sort of grassroots advocacy and address an issue in a ‘person centered’ way; I don’t believe that this really happened before HIV.”

Activist, therapist, program manager, and a “poster boy” for living well through recovery and HIV, Dan continues the fight against HIV in San Diego County. To engage with “Why Not? San Diego” and join the discussion, visit facebook.com/groups/whynotsd and don’t forget, the next Truax Awards will be Dec. 1, 2017 – World AIDS Day!

—Ian D. Morton is the senior program analyst at San Diego Human Dignity Foundation and produces the Y.E.S. San Diego LGBTQ youth conference. To nominate an individual or nonprofit for this column, please email the information to ian@sdhdf.org.

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