Randy: When I was diagnosed with HIV, I was 19, and I’d just finished cosmetology school. I had decided that wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life, and I wanted to get a different degree, but I didn’t want to spend what I thought would be the few years I had left sitting in a classroom. I spent them instead as a customer service representative just for the money and health insurance.

Ricky: I understand how you’re feeling—I went to cosmetology school too! I dropped out after I was diagnosed, in 1988, because the doctor told me I had only six months to live. I thought, “If I’m going to die, I might as well just relax and drink.” I went back to the doctor a few months later, and he said I might have two more years. This went on and on, and I started to realize that I might survive a long time. Five years ago, I returned to beauty school.

Randy: That’s great. About five years after my diagnosis, I realized I’d survive too. So I decided to enter a nursing program, something I had long considered. But returning to school is hard. Keeping up with tuition is so difficult, especially with doctor and treatment bills. I hunted for scholarships for HIV positive students but found nothing. How did you do it?  

Ricky: By law, if you’re HIV positive, you have a terminal illness, and you can get financial help from the government. I used VESID [Vocational and Educational Services for Individuals With Disabilities], which helps students in New York with disabilities; you can find information about every state at www.jan.wvu.edu/sbses/vocrehab.htm. They even helped with subway expenses.

Randy: OK, so you figured out the finances, but what about the fatigue? I need to work while I’m in school, but I don’t see how I can keep going. Upper-level courses are so intense, and I’m afraid I’ll completely exhaust myself.

Ricky: That was an issue for me too. But I was determined to get my cosmetology license. HIV had stolen so much of my life. When I needed to take off to rest, I would take off. Ask your doc for advice. You’re going to have to push yourself, but once you get your degree, it will be so liberating because you’ll be prepared for the next
chapter of your life.

Randy: What about regrets? I wish I had realized earlier that my life was not going to end so soon. During the first five years I was positive, I worked, but I could have done so much more with my life. There are so many things that I wanted to do. Wasting that time was my biggest mistake.

Ricky: Maybe it wasn’t a mistake. Maybe you needed the time to heal. You took five years; I took 12. I needed all of that time to be angry and to come to terms with my diagnosis. It’s not easy to return to school—the other students were in their early twenties, and I was in my thirties. But it doesn’t matter what age you are; you can start life anytime. You get to learn a brand-new lesson, and the other students get to learn from you. I’m with you that HIV steals our lives—but look at us—we’re proof that you can get back on track.   

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