amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Making a Positive Impact: HIV Diagnosis Brings Enlightenment

 

A longtime amfAR donor, Vicki Derdivanis has been living with HIV since 1991. For 10 years, she volunteered as a public speaker for Catholic Charities and a local high school, sharing her experiences as an HIV-positive woman. She lives in Oakland, CA. 


What motivated you to donate to amfAR?
My husband was diagnosed with AIDS in 1991. Just a few days after he was diagnosed, I was tested and found I was positive. I’ve taken a great interest in research and I want to do what I can to help bring an end to this disease.

In what ways did your life change after you learned of your HIV status?
After my husband died in September 1993, I spent the rest of that year in solitude. There were a lot of things I had to think over. My daughter would bring me groceries, and that was about the only contact I had. I’m Catholic, but I didn’t go to church.

At the end of three months, I had an enlightenment. The Greeks call it metanoia. I discovered a very deep love of God. I found that I had a very deep seated faith. That was a real life-changing experience for me, and that’s why I got involved with Catholic Charities in Oakland, as a public speaker. I thought, “I’ve got to save the world from AIDS. I’ve got to talk to young people.” So I also became involved with one of the local high schools, as part of a class called Living and Dying.

I realized that as a woman in my 50s and 60s, I presented a rather interesting picture of AIDS. When I visited students, their jaws kind of mentally dropped open, because they didn’t know why I was there to speak. Here was this nice white-haired lady getting up at the podium and saying, “I have AIDS,” and I could see them thinking, “Wow, that’s my grandma.”

In my very first class, one boy put his head down as soon as he found out what I was going to talk about. I thought he had gone to sleep. But on the last day of class, he came up to me and he said, “On the first day, when you came in, I thought ‘Oh, no, another AIDS lecture.’ But you have no idea what you’ve done for me in reconciling the death of my grandfather.” So you never know when you’ve touched people, and in what way. If I saved one person from doing something unsafe, then I’m happy.

Had you done any public speaking before that?
No. My husband was a marvelous extrovert. We worked together in advertising, and he was the one who did all the public speaking. But after he was gone, I thought somebody needed to do this.

Did you feel you had an impact on the students you spoke to?
I think the impact was on me. They gave so much back to me. That’s what I’ve found with this disease, that it has brought wonderful people into my life! It has brought so much love into my life. I am able to share so much more of myself that I ever did before. So yes, it’s a terrible thing, but it’s given so much to me.

After your diagnosis, did you face any stigma?
One of the most difficult things I experienced was the last time the AIDS Memorial Quilt was displayed in full, in Washington D.C., and I went with a friend to see it. That evening, there was a march from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, and as we marched along, we saw people holding signs that said we were going to go straight to hell. I can’t comprehend that, because my mantra is love. Where does that come from? They don’t even know me.

But in my own life, I have a lot of support and I feel shunned by no one. If I think someone is having a problem, well, that’s their problem. 

Why do you feel AIDS research is so important? 
During the two years when my husband lived with AIDS, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation had a slogan: “Be here for the cure.” He kept saying, “I’m going to be here for the cure.” Well, the cure hasn’t happened yet, and that was almost 20 years ago. It’s wonderful to support the groups that are taking care of people with AIDS, but I also realized that you’re not going to the source that way. So that’s when I thought I’d better support amfAR, since they’re the ones who are doing the research.