Living through adversity breeds motivation, drive
Turning point moment presents chance to create change
March 29, 2017
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Denial, grief, bargaining, depression.
These are stages that occur when a person is confronted with a life-threatening illness.
Acceptance, strength, courage, perseverance.
These happen when that person accepts the reality of their condition and usually results in the admiration of others.
When Contra Costa College Senior Executive Assistant to the President Michael Peterson was diagnosed with HIV, 10 years ago this month, he faced an uncertain present and future.
“It was very frightening because I was afraid of how I would be treated by society, and by other gay people,” Peterson said. The stigma toward people living with HIV can awaken insecurities and bring shame.
Peterson said he was afraid he would never be able to date again and afraid that when his family found out the truth they wouldn’t know how to help him.
“I was afraid I would be shunned,” he said. “I kept it secret from (family) for a good seven years, then I finally told my parents. I just recently told my siblings after 10 years of keeping it a secret.”
When telling his family, he said it was like “coming out” all over again.
But with a fundraising goal of $10,000 that will go toward funding HIV/AIDS research, education to help reduce the rate of infections and medication for people with the virus who cannot afford it, Peterson found the vehicle with which he could share the news with his family.
“I was going to send my fundraising announcement to the whole world, and I wanted to give them a heads up,” he said.
The AIDS Lifecycle is a 545-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles from June 4-10 that more than 3,000 cyclists will participate in to raise funds for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
Peterson said his cycling fundraiser is personal for him. It helped his own sanity and allowed him to accept himself as he is.
“When I first was diagnosed, I thought I was going to die — and die alone,” he said. At 27, Peterson found out he had Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer that causes lesions in the skin. His immune system weakened and his CD4 (a type of white blood cell that fights infection) count was 57. A count below 200 means a person is living with HIV.
Peterson said with the help of his physician, Dr. Miriam Cameron, he was able to recover and has been taking medication to fight the virus and stay alive.
“If I don’t take my medication every day, I will die. I cannot skip a dose,” he said. “I have extra doses in my desk. I have extra doses in my truck — (I have them) everywhere I go.”
The fact that others with HIV need the same medication, and that it may not be affordable or accessible to them, has driven Peterson to take action.
“That’s why I do this ride. To help other people who are experiencing what I have experienced.”
He said he needed to ride for his own therapeutic help. “It’s helped me release a lot of the shame I felt about having my disease.”
Peterson said living with HIV has given him a “deeper” appreciation for other people who suffer from the condition.
“It’s almost a blessing in disguise,” he said. “I am forced to value my life in a way that some people never have the opportunity to — really reflecting on (our) own morality.”
The initial reaction of people finding out about Peterson’s condition is shock because they haven’t met someone who is HIV positive before, he said.
Foundation Development Officer Sara Marcellino said she found out during a conversation she had with Peterson. She works in an office across from Peterson’s desk inside SA-201 and outside of the President’s Office, and is able to see him on a daily basis.
“My feeling when I found out was pride. He is taking steps to live a full life as anyone with (HIV) can today,” Marcellino said.
She said she was proud of Peterson when he decided to be a part of the Lifecycle fundraiser and supports his cause and that he believes it is his mission to be serving the students of this college.
President Mojdeh Mehdizadeh said Peterson is “highly” professional and a dedicated member of the college and his HIV status does not affect the work he does.
“When Michael shared his HIV status, I felt honored that he trusted me with the information. And on a personal level, I felt love and compassion toward him,” Mehdizadeh said.
Marcellino said working with Peterson brings her joy. “He is smart. He is funny. Michael is really compassionate and such a heartfelt person.”
Peterson said when he found out he was HIV positive he became “cynical” about life. He was forced into adulthood.
But he said he felt it was necessary to be upfront about his status with the people he dated. “I’ve had people who told me ‘I don’t date someone who is HIV positive’,” he said.
“Testing (for the condition) is so necessary,” he said.
With medical advances, Peterson said, he has gone from taking eight pills a day to just two in the morning for the last five years. He has a lot more energy and is probably the healthiest he’s ever been.
“Once I was so secretive about it. Now I don’t care who knows because I will never allow the stigma to prevent me from living. I will never allow myself to be judged for it. Awareness destroys fear.”
To support Peterson’s ride, visit http://www.tofighthiv.org/goto/Spud_Peterson