It started when I was a graduate student at the UCLA School of Social Work from 1990 to 1993. I decided that I wanted to work with persons living with HIV and AIDS so I could share myself and what I had learned as a cancer survivor with people facing a different sort of life-threatening illness. I also decided that I wanted to complete a Master's Thesis in 1991 and the subject would be on women living with HIV. This decision brought me to the AIDS Service Center (ASC) in Pasadena and the Director of Client Services, Dina Rosen, LCSW. Next to AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), ASC was the second largest AIDS organization in Los Angeles County. And unlike APLA, ASC and Dina were willing to help me connect with women living with HIV/AIDS and ask them to complete the questionnaire that was the basis of my thesis project.
I admired Dina from the moment we met. She was warm and friendly; she exuding commitment to the cause of HIV and AIDS like it was a perfume that she wore. She spent some time talking to me about my thesis project and explaining the services of ASC, and in her words and her facial expressions I could both hear and see her dedication to her mission. We were interrupted several times by her co-workers; I could tell they respected her too and looked to her for guidance. I left our meeting wanting to be a social worker just like her.
As fate would have it, we met again in 1995. Newly employed at the Santa Monica AIDS Project as the Client Services Coordinator, my boss and I were interviewing for a Clinical Consultant to guide and mentor me. At that time, Dina had left ASC and was working as a consultant. My boss knew Dina, as he had worked at ASC with her, and I jumped at the opportunity to consider her for the position. It wasn't really fair to the other applicants that came to interview because I already had my heart set on making sure my boss offered the job to Dina. She accepted and I was elated!
Over the next three years Dina became my teacher. She challenged me and made me think. She let me make plenty of mistakes so I could learn from them along the way. She taught me what she knew about case management, social work and supervising other people and I listened and learned eagerly. She also provided me with much needed clinical supervision hours and helped me achieve my goal of becoming a licensed clinical social worker. I will always be indebted to her for this help. Her generous teaching helped me pass the written and oral exams on my first try. (To put this in perspective, given the overall pass rate back then was only 50%, this is a huge accomplishment.)
Through this experience she also became my friend, much to my delight. We started talking to each other by phone and meeting up with each other to go out. When I considered who to choose for my attendants at my 1998 wedding, Dina became my choice for maid-of-honor. She graciously accepted when I asked her.
In 2000, Dina decided to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor and in the process has transformed herself into a world traveler. She attended medical school at St. Georges University in West Indies and her medical training has taken her to London, the Czech Republic, Cuba, the East Coast, the East San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles. During this time, I have seen Dina a few times a year, whenever she has been in Los Angeles. I've reveled in the opportunity to share a meal and get caught up on all her adventures. Earlier this year she accepted a job working for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Durban, South Africa. She won't be back in Los Angeles for a while, so we'll have to try to keep in touch by email and Facebook.
In recent years, I've often imagine myself doing the same things that Dina is doing. In my parallel life, I would have gone to medical school instead of being diagnose with cancer at age 22 and stayed single instead of getting married. I would have joined the Peace Corps and worked for the World Health Organization. I'd be a world traveler too. I'd be expressing the same dedication to fighting HIV/AIDS that she does:
"Why HIV Medicine? It is my calling. I worked in HIV/AIDS as a social worker and administrator for 12 years before going to medical school. I loved the clients and feel a great sense of purpose in helping those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS throughout the world."So I guess I have come full circle: icon, mentor, friend, icon. In many ways, my relationship with Dina is like following a guru or a rock star: I want to be like her, I want to be close to her, I hang on her every word and I can never get enough of her. She is my HERO for inspiring me, teaching me, helping me and being my friend. I can't imagine my life without her being a part of it.