Dawn Averitt: Advocate

Ruby's Rap

by Ruby Comer

Photo by Stephanie Gross

My dear precious poodles—

Did you see the film Wild, with Reese Witherspoon, a few years back?! It’s a biopic about a young girl hiking the Pacific Crest Trail for healing and self discovery. Well, in 2000, my friend Dawn Averitt hiked over 2,000 miles along the Appalachian Trail through fourteen states to raise HIV awareness. She called it Trekking with AIDS. Land of Goshen, this girl has zeal!

What motivated Dawn? Let’s back up a few years. In 1988, at nineteen, the former model was in Madrid, Spain, where she was raped a week after her arrival. She kept the attack a secret. Within seven weeks, however, she developed swollen neck lymph nodes and a high fever. The acute illness passed, but the swelling persisted. Months later, when she returned to America, Dawn underwent a battery of tests.

After a presumptive diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she asked her doctor to test her for HIV. Dawn noted that she wanted to be the first girl on the block with an “HIV-negative card”—remember, it was 1988! She didn’t get the card.

Instead, Dawn became a one-woman powerhouse for the HIV community.

In 2002, she and her brother, Richard, co-founded The Well Project, a nonprofit whose

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

mission is to improve the lives of women living with HIV and AIDS focusing on treatment and prevention. The following year, she launched a think tank, Women’s Research Initiative on HIV/AIDS (WRI). In 2013, Dawn did a TedX Talk, speaking about an initiative to end AIDS in America. This activist also serves on numerous boards and panels, including two terms on the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) from 2010–2015. She’s also president of a consulting firm in Strafford, Vermont, where she resides with her wife, Rosi, and their three daughters.

Since I am speaking at a college located in New Hampshire tomorrow afternoon, I text Dawn. I knew she lived in a state border town, but didn’t know where. Fortunately, it’s not a big schlep. Dawn suggests we rally at Market Table. After we each order salads, I am taken by the village-y ambiance of this restaurant and town.

Ruby Comer: It’s been eons since I’ve been to New England. I’ve forgotten how quaint and charming these villages are. Last time I visited I skied at the Trapp Family Lodge [in Stowe, Vermont]. You know me…I still have such a crush on Captain Von Trapp [the father in the bio-musical flick The Sound of Music]!
[Taking a beat, I back away from the table, and inhale deeply.] My gawd it is so good to see you, Dawn! [We pause to enjoy the moment.] Tell me about your life here in little ol’ Vermont.

Dawn Averitt: I live life fully, Ruby. I am a middle-aged, mini-van-driving soccer mom. I eat pretty healthy, hike as often as I can, laugh a lot, love fiercely, and benefit enormously from the love and support of my amazing family and friends. I try hard to live every day like I have six months to live and live every day like I’m going to live forever. Try it. It’s not easy. [She forks a few bites of her entrée.] And late last year we moved into an old farmhouse.

Holy jumpin’ catfish! This is kinda Hallmark Channel-ish—so romantic and wholesome.
[She chuckles.] We have a few horses and mini-donkeys, along with chickens, dogs, barn cars, and bunnies.

My gosh sister, you are a serious famer!
It has been a family dream and since our oldest daughter is nearly half way through high school, it was time.

Catch me up on your family….
Well, Rosi and I have three daughters. The first two I gave birth to in 2002 and 2004. Their names are Maddy and Sophie. [They are negative.] The youngest one my partner gave birth to in 2016. Her name is Roo.

Aw….Ya know, I’m curious, when did you first hear about the epidemic?
In 1986 while I was a student at New York University. A student in my dorm was rumored to have AIDS. I would take him soup.

Workwise, what are you currently concentrating on?
On our Women’s Research Initiative on HIV/AIDS (WRI) annual convention, tackling the opioid crisis, and [she pauses and shakes her head] focusing energy on the 2018 elections. We have to turn this ship around! [Dawn rolls her eyes and smirks.] I can’t watch network or cable news anymore, Ruby, so I tune in Seth Meyers, John Oliver, Steven Colbert, and Trevor Noah.

I get it. Believe me. I’m with you all the way. After you were diagnosed, Dawn, how did you handle the news?
I thought I had six months to live. I was told not to return to NYU because I couldn’t handle the harsh winters, and so I stayed in Atlanta with my family. I was terrified that I could infect someone else, especially someone I cared for. I was told not to read anything, because it was too confusing, and not to tell anyone, because it could ruin my family’s life and jeopardize jobs, insurance, school, and so on. So, I decided to return to college and transferred to Georgia State University.

How was your health through these years?
I progressed quickly and received my “AIDS diagnosis” in 1994. I had 74 T-cells. I wasn’t responding to the meds at the time and my t-cell count was plummeting. I was working for a grassroots AIDS service organization called The AIDS Survival Project in Atlanta, where I found out about a promising treatment in clinical trials happening in Albany, New York. This was the dose-escalating study of the protease inhibitor, Crixivan. I made my way to Albany and after my initial rejection by the researchers, I inquired about how many women they had for the study and if they would screen me again. I was admitted. Now I’m a long-term survivor thanks to protease inhibitors! [From 2006–2009 Dawn was a force behind the GRACE Study, the first U.S. HIV treatment study to successfully enroll a majority of women. The study proved that HIV-positive women and people of color who participate in clinical studies experience different barriers to treatment than men.]

You glow my dear. [She smiles brightly and I think, what ivories!] How are you today?
I am healthy today! 2018 is the thirtieth anniversary of my diagnosis—and at the end of this year, I turn fifty! These milestones seemed impossible in 1988….

Oh, wow. How does that compute?
I’m ecstatic! I…worked.. hard…for… this. [Grinning, she cocks her head and tosses her silky Vogue-like hair, as if to mock putting on airs.)

Yes, 1988 was such a different state of mind, wasn’t it?! What one thing stands out that you’ve learned from being HIV-positive?
Humanity is both vulnerable and resilient. By embracing my vulnerability, I discovered strength, joy, and love. I didn’t know it was possible.

You have empowered many people. How did the roots of your activism develop?

Photo by Stephanie Gross

My parents always told me I could do anything, well…[she hesitates, giggles then continues] except go to the midnight movie, use illicit drugs, skip school, and so forth. They deserve so much credit. I would not be alive if they had not been there every step of the way. Honestly, I never set out to be an activist, per se. I knew from my earliest days that I wanted to contribute something to the world. I just didn’t know how that would manifest itself. Then HIV appeared. It’s always been easier to fight for others. I think many women feel that way.

What road our high heels click down sometimes can be such a mystery. Lordy Mary! Hopefully we encounter a Glenda the Good Witch who can tap us with her magic wand and take us home. [We both nod and take a deep breath.] What’s your best advice to women to avoid HIV?
Know your worth. Believe in yourself. Fight like hell [she states with fervor, staccato]. Protect yourself however and whenever you can. Arm yourself with information. It’s free. Use the tools—condoms, PrEP, PEP, negotiation, safe havens, advocates, organizations, and hopefully, microbicides on the horizon. [She gazes out onto the town clock on Main Street and sums up.] These tools are there…for you!

For more information about The Well Project, log on to: www.thewellproject.org.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].