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HIV/AIDS patients, volunteers gather for Thanksgiving feast at hospital

Volunteers Patty Morris of New Hyde Park and

Volunteers Patty Morris of New Hyde Park and Kat Hammett of Merrick help serve dessert as the Long Island Friends of People with AIDS holds its 32nd annual Thanksgiving dinner at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow on Sunday. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

Nassau University Medical Center became a site of celebration Sunday as dozens of HIV/AIDS patients and volunteers gathered for a Thanksgiving feast.

More than 50 people ate turkey and mingled in the East Meadow hospital’s auditorium, which was filled with live music, trays of food and a table of donated clothes and toiletries.

Patients said the event made them feel good, gave them a place to celebrate the holiday and provided a feeling that everyone was family.

“It just shows that there’s people in the world that really care,” said a 25-year-old rehabilitation patient, who declined to give his name. “You can always find love somewhere.”

The annual event began 32 years ago after organizer Allan Trompeter of Hempstead went to a similar event at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis Center in New York City following his friend’s death in 1986. He remembered that attendees “were living their lives to the fullest, despite it being their last year on the planet.”

Trompeter launched the Long Island Friends of People with AIDS and began holding holiday events at NUMC in 1987, back when it had an AIDS ward. Now patients come from multiple units and NuHealth facilities.

"The goal is to let these people know that they are not forgotten because they’re not visited often," Trompeter said. 

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Sunday’s event marked the group’s 128th visit to the hospital, Trompeter, 81, said.

In the first years of the group, Trompeter said HIV and AIDS patients would seem healthy on an initial visit, “were blind” by the second and “they’d be gone by the third visit.” Now that treatments have come such a long way, Trompeter said he has seen some patients for 10 to 15 years.

But there is still loss from a disease without a cure.

“We lose some from previous years, which hurts my heart because some of them I got close to,” said Debbie Troy, a singer from Queens who has performed at the Thanksgiving feast for 16 years. “I hope we didn’t lose any this year.”

Volunteer Gail Reitman, of Jericho, said that when she first started volunteering with the group 14 years ago, “I used to feel really sad — and lucky for myself — and now I feel happy.”

Reitman, 61, said the change comes from getting to know some patients over the years and seeing them happy, appreciative and “enjoy being here.”

“I look forward to seeing some people every year, but I get sad when I don’t see them anymore,” Reitman, who works in sales, said.

For volunteer Pat Gordon, the Thanksgiving meal is a way of letting patients know that other people think of them, especially at a time when people can get busy during the holiday season.

“Setting aside time to let people know they’re not forgotten is really important,” Gordon of Westbury said.

Rayshawn, a rehabilitation patient who didn't give his last name, described the event as “uplifting” and filled with love. Sunday's meal was his family Thanksgiving in a way this year, and it helped that the sweet potatoes were “just like my mom makes them.”

“My family is my recovery team,” Rayshawn, 28, of Freeport, said.

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