Vicki Derdivanis, 75 • Retired • Oakland, California • HIV diagnosis: 1991
In 1991, my daughter had been married and my husband and I were ready to slow down and live the good life. But my husband kept getting the flu. Finally, after many months and many doctors, he was diagnosed with AIDS and I was absolutely knocked off my pins. So I got tested too.
My husband was very sick by this time, and when the doctor came into his hospital room and told me I had tested positive, I was stunned. I was perfectly healthy. I began right away taking care of my husband. I had my hands full. He was on oxygen and all kinds of medications, though HIV meds were not yet available. His will kept him going. Then, 26 months later, he died.
After the memorial service, after all the relatives left, I sat down and came apart. Then I became angry and finally let loose my emotions. Once, I stood in the kitchen with a plate in my hand and felt I wanted to throw it through the window. But then I thought, “It’s a new dish, and a glazier to replace the window would be expensive.” Where was I going? I had no idea. I withdrew and went into near seclusion. He died in September, and it wasn’t until about mid-December that I realized I needed some consolation.
I began going to daily Mass. I had an epiphany, feeling God just pouring into my life. I felt that it had been such a dirty trick that I got HIV, now God was saying, “I’ll do a little something extra for you.”
In HIV support groups, I have often found that people say there is something greater in their lives now, something new [since getting HIV]. Sometimes it’s God, other times it’s just “something greater.”
AIDS has spread so rapidly through Africa because the wives have relations with their husbands, while the husbands have a little something on the side. We women are so vulnerable to HIV because we still have no equality. If a woman gave her husband HIV, there would be hell to pay. But the other way, it’s “boys will be boys.” I’m resentful of that—for myself and for all the other women who have become positive because of some guy, some jerk. Once when I was speaking, a girl told me, “Sometime in the future, I’m going to get married. How can I trust my husband?” I couldn’t answer. The logical answer is you wouldn’t marry someone who was untrustworthy. But in real life, it’s a stinker.
The other problem is that we are the caregivers. We want to take care of the whole world. I spent the first two years of my life with HIV taking care of my husband. I was busy with his care day and night. I became his private nurse—and that is something I had never wanted to be. I once said to the priest, “I have chosen to take care of him,” and the priest said, “But of course you have!” It’s not “of course,” I thought. And now I have begun to take care of myself.
I had been in my husband’s shadow for 37 years of marriage. I did eventually gain my own power, though. When he became ill, I had to take over our business, then all the medical and legal details of our lives. So after he died, I was ready to go to work. Once I reemerged from my seclusion, Catholic Charities asked me to do some speaking to students and other groups. I was in my 60s, my hair had started to turn white. I would walk into a classroom, and no one knew exactly why I was there until I began telling my story. It was wonderful to see the expressions on the kids’ faces as it began to dawn on them that anyone can get this disease.