Since 1989, the Thomas Street Health Center has provided a beacon of hope for many thousands of Houstonians facing HIV/AIDS. The Center, located at 2015 Thomas Street on Houston’s north side, was the first freestanding AIDS-treatment clinic in the US. It is operated by the Harris Health System and enjoys a tremendous reputation for treating the often-stigmatized populations suffering from the disease.
News that the beloved clinic is moving to a better facility across town was bittersweet for many Thomas Street supporters and patients. Early next month, the Quentin Mease Health Center, located at 3601 N. MacGregor Way, will serve Thomas Street patients after a massive renovation. The new multi-floor clinic allows Harris Health to provide more services to more people, all under one roof.
The stately building currently housing the Thomas Street Center was built as The Southern Pacific Railroad’s Sunset Hospital in 1910, and would have required substantial upgrades to continue in operation. Its historic-landmark designation protects it from the wrecking ball, but also limits the options for necessary additions. Operating the second-largest HIV clinic in the country and serving an estimated 5,700 patients in such a limited facility presented Harris Health with a significant challenge.
“We have taken this beautiful old building as far as it would go. If we add one more office to Thomas Street, it would have to be in an elevator,” states Michael Ruggerio, Harris Health’s HIV Project Manager and a 15-year employee at the Center. (Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia has not yet announced how the county-owned building will be adapted to serve his constituents in Precinct 2.)
Thomas Street holds a special place in the hearts of many in Houston’s LGBTQ community. When HIV/AIDS first appeared in the US, it was largely limited to gay and bisexual men. Thomas Street was on the front lines fighting against the epidemic in those dark days.
As a young man in 1993, Ruggerio started working with AIDS patients in Houston prior to holding a post in Washington D.C. back before effective treatments existed. But by the time he landed a position at Thomas Street, HIV medications were starting to drastically reduce the number of AIDS-related deaths.
“When I started at Thomas Street, I began to see people who really got better! That was the first time hope entered the picture for me. A couple years after I got to Thomas Street, a father literally carried his son into the Center and I thought, ‘Oh, he will not do well.’ Not only did he get better, he became a volunteer and then joined our team. I rely on him regularly now, and he’s never missed a day of work!” Ruggerio remarks with joy.
“It’s the people who work at Thomas Street that make the difference,” he continues. “We have people on staff who have been here 20+ years, and even since the beginning! This is really a team, and I feel so fortunate to be a part of it.”
Over the years, Thomas Street has gained national and international attention for its cutting-edge services, excellence in treatment, and expertise in HIV/AIDS care. These factors, combined with the new therapies available today, allow thousands of people in Harris County to “manage” the illness rather than die from it.
“There’s so much life after a diagnosis now. Our goal is to work our way out of business,” says Dawn Jenkins, Harris Health System’s Director of Ambulatory Care and HIV/AIDS Services at Thomas Street.
“We have come such a long way. We have phenomenal doctors here working on research and advancing our ability to treat HIV. Thomas Street and its team of health care professionals are among the best in the nation,” Jenkins adds with a smile.
For those who ask why so many public resources are devoted to HIV/AIDS treatment, it is easy to forget that HIV is still a contagious virus that results in death when left untreated. If Thomas Street had relinquished its mission of treating infected people and preventing new infections, the disease could once again rage like wildfire through the community.
Even with all of the resources aimed at prevention and treatment, Harris County is seeing an alarming spike in HIV infections in young adults ages 18 to 24. As HIV treatment becomes more available and more effective, today’s youth are taking the threat less seriously, so the work of public-health professionals is by no means finished.
Dr. Jose Serpa-Alvarez is an infectious-diseases specialist with Baylor College of Medicine and the newest medical director of HIV services at Thomas Street Health Center. This experienced doctor has been working in the HIV/AIDS arena for 18 years in various capacities, and has witnessed many changes over time.
“In the last two decades, things have transformed,” Serpa-Alvarez explains in his gentle manner. “Our patients are living longer now, so we are seeing the same complications we see in the aging population as a whole. That’s great! For those of us who have been doing this for a while, we are seeing people live ‘normal’ lives.”
With that kind of success at Thomas Street, he is even more excited about the clinic’s move next month. “The new facility is state-of-the-art, and one of the most modern in the country. Everything is brand-new, and all of the care providers at Thomas Street—without exception—will be going there, too. So we will deliver that same quality of care with better tools!” Serpa-Alvarez says.
Dr. Thomas Giordano, who served as Medical Director of HIV Services at Thomas Street for 17 years prior to Dr. Serpa-Alvarez, played a leading role in developing the clinic’s outstanding reputation. In 2021 he was appointed as the Chief of Infectious Diseases at Baylor College of Medicine and received a grant to develop a center for AIDS research, so he turned over the reins to Dr. Serpa-Alvarez.
But Dr. Giordano considers himself a “Thomas Street lifer” and will continue seeing patients at the new facility. “We still see people who come in really sick with AIDS, people who are near death. Thanks to new treatments and great care, we see them get better within months or even weeks. It is very, very rewarding,” he adds.
“A lot of credit goes to the exceptional care our patients get at Thomas Street. The staff is remarkable, but it was not always like that. There have always been people who were deeply committed, but there were also those who just couldn’t make it elsewhere in the system. Over time, that changed. The people who are there now are there because they want to be. It is not just a job for them, it’s a mission,” Giordano notes.
“And Thomas Street offers an opportunity to treat people who have nowhere else to turn. It is one thing to care for people who have resources and advocates, but our patients are marginalized in numerous ways. And we help them! That’s why I love Thomas Street,” he concludes. “It is such a wonderful, amazing place.”
The newly renovated Quentin Mease Hospital in Third Ward, will now be Quentin Mease Health Center and will house several specialty clinics including HIV Services which will occupy the largest portion of the six-floor facility.
To honor its legacy and history, the services will be named Thomas Street at Quentin Mease. “With retaining our name,” states Ruggerio, “we are celebrating our past while embracing our future.”
Those who are mourning the loss of the old Thomas Street space can be reminded that it’s the people that give a building its life, and every one of them at Thomas Street is making the move to better serve those in need.
For more on the Thomas Street Health Center, visit nextlevelharrishealth.org/thomas-street.