A normal morning for an HIV-positive person begins with a hefty cocktail of numerous medications and enough water to last for a trip through the desert.
For Hillel Wasserman, a 57-year-old motion picture marketing specialist, this has been his reality for the past 26 years.
“I have more physicians than I have friends,” Wasserman said with a laugh.
Fighting a deathly illness makes it a daily challenge to stay positive, but Wasserman has found a way to continue to live each day to its fullest by being a speaker for an organization called Being Alive. His speeches assist others by helping them deal with their illness and providing insight and education to the public about an illness that seems to remain a step ahead at all times.
“The purpose of Being Alive is to draw HIV-positive men and women out of the isolation and hiding that tends to come with this kind of devastating diagnosis and bring them back into the real world again,” Wasserman said.
Being Alive was created 27 years ago and was the very first peer-led, non-profit HIV/AIDS organization in the country, with everyone connected to the association being HIV positive. The group has a dynamic mental health program and is the only HIV/AIDS organization in the entire country that offers free one-on-one counseling to all of their members.
Having HIV-positive speakers allows the audience to connect on a more personal level rather than if a doctor were spewing facts and information at them.
“Our mission is to try to tell a personal story,” said Colin Hadlow, chairman of the speakers bureau. “We’re not trying to educate people on AIDS 101.”
The group has been speaking at Pierce for the past 20 years and will be on campus again for two weeks starting Nov. 12 until Nov. 22 on behalf of HIV Awareness Month. Hillel and other speakers will be available for all teachers to reserve a time for them to speak to their classes.
“We really want Being Alive on campus the week prior to testing and the week of testing, so we can give teachers two weeks to choose a time to invite a speaker to their class,” said Beth Benne, director of the Student Health Center.
Pierce is the only campus that Being Alive works with that offers free HIV testing to all students and faculty. According to Hadlow, Pierce is by far the most proactive school that Being Alive teaches at as far as getting involved with the student body in AIDS intervention and prevention.
“When I tested positive, I expected to live no more than six months,” Wasserman said. “Although I realized it would be unrealistic to expect my doctor to be HIV-positive also, I wouldn’t have minded someone sitting next to him saying, ‘you know what, this isn’t good but it’s not the end of the world, we’ll find a way through this together.’”
When HIV first leached its way into society, it was seen as the new boogeyman after the fall of communism. People were tearing whole pages out of their phone books due to the number of deaths and doctors were left scared and puzzled with a disease that was smarter than them.
“There is no other illness that thinks on its own the way HIV does,” Wasserman said. “It has the capability of thinking and changing course.”
For Wasserman and his fellow speakers, being able to care for someone the way they were never cared for makes living with this terrible disease almost tolerable.
“What I find most stunning about Being Alive is it’s about becoming,” Wasserman said. “It’s about becoming human again and becoming greater than this disease. Greater than you thought you were when you were handed what you thought was surely a death sentence.”
Being an active voice for the organization helps spread prevention education to schools and city programs and provides a link to treatment and care to those in need. Also, it assists in reclaiming some normalcy back into the speaker’s lives through their service.
“What keeps me coming back is watching lives reclaimed from despair,” Wasserman said. “The dirty little secret to volunteer work is: doing good makes you feel good. It can become quite addictive.”