By Dixie Ann Black
At the start of COVID, Cassandra Esperant’s father was hospitalized for the disease and succumbed to it due to his comorbidities (pre-existing conditions). His daughter explained that in the beginning of COVID most people, including the nurses in hospitals, were unsure of what they were dealing with and were afraid. She remembers that the hospital staff was fully masked, and her father was placed in isolation. She was not allowed to visit. She would call the nurses’ station and request that her father receive water. She lives with the uncertainty of whether her father ever received the water to quench his thirst before he died. Dr. Cassandra Esperant has wanted to be an advocate since she was five years old, her father’s treatment and death ignited that fire.
Esperant was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Her family migrated to the Florida when she was a year old. Her father flourished in South Florida as a real estate broker and her mother as nurse. They provided a strong example of physical and spiritual leadership for Esperant and her three younger siblings. But even as the family grew and prospered Esperant became increasingly aware of the disparities around her. As a child, she remembers watching television as Haitians arrived in the United States by boat and were quickly sent back to Haiti. She listened as Haitians were packaged as potential members of the notorious “4-H Club” (hemophiliacs, homosexuals, heroin users and Haitians). Meanwhile, she witnessed general disparity of treatment of Black and Brown people around her as she grew up in Fort Lauderdale. She knew she wanted to do something to help but the route to helping was not yet clear.
Florida Atlantic and Nova Southeastern Universities provided the path. Esperant earned a doctorate in Pharmacy and entered the health arena determined to help. But it wasn’t until she joined the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) that she found a clear path to impacting the disparity within her community. At AHF her advocacy grew roots and took wings.
Dr. Esperant is a Strategic Response Team Pharmacist at the AHF Southern Bureau and Wellness Center in Fort Lauderdale. She is an HIV prevention expert who trains and guides patients in the uses of PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), a daily pill that helps to prevent HIV. The doctor points out that sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) have increased during COVID due to people being home-bound, a lack of diverse people groups and activity, unprotected sex and due to a lack of testing. The stigmatization of Black and Brown people has also contributed significantly to a lack of treatment and prevention, Dr. Esperant explains that people are afraid to call or get tested for fear of being labeled and ostracized.
However, the Strategic Response team provides a non-invasive way for individuals to get tested at remote sites and check in using telehealth portals. Patients have been happy to get their blood drawn and speak to a pharmacist remotely, then have their medicines delivered in unmarked containers.
Esperant also sees patients face to face and assists with guiding them through a Collaborative Practice Agreement with doctors which allows her as a pharmacist to initiate treatment once STDs are identified. Her patients enjoy her personal manner and respond well to probing questions that help her determined their risk.
Dr. Esperant points out that whether in-person patient consultations, via electronic means or in training of other professionals she asks crucial questions that doctors, and patients should discuss: “Who are you having sex with?” (Same-sex or not); “What type of sex are you having?” (Protected, or not), “Are you having sex in order to obtain food or money?” (Economic risk factors). The pharmacist points out that these questions form a foundation for the understanding of what is happening and what is needed in treating people at risk for the disease. She trains social workers, doctors, nurses, and other professionals who obtain continuing education credits through her program at AHF. It is here that her advocacy shines. It is here that she emphasizes the need for them to understand more deeply how to combat the risks of sexually transmitted diseases by understanding its many tentacled roots.
Dr. Esperant doesn’t stop at treating patients during business hours. “She would like to be a member of PACHA, (the Presidential Advisory Council of AIDS/HIV, as well as a member of HAPA (Haitian American Pharmacist Association). Through these endeavors Esperant has been able to help at home and abroad, having returned to Haiti and assisted in identifying and treating HIV patients in the country of her birth.
Esperant is thrilled to be a member of AHF. She describes her job at AHF in a single word, “Awesome!”
She explains that the far-reaching effects of AHF go beyond diagnosis and treatment of STDs. AHF is vested in their employees personally and professionally. “I don’t think I would have had the opportunities I’ve had if I had been working for somebody else.” Her role as an advocate brings her joy because she can bring others help and hope. And after all that is the meaning of her name “Esperant” literally means “Hope”.