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Breaking the "Red Ribbon Ceiling"

Part Three of "I Just Wanted to Apply to Law School"

By Thomas DeLorenzo

February 24, 2010

This blog entry is part of a three-part series (check out Part One and Part Two), in which I recount my experiences applying to Law School at age 47, from the circumstances that led me to apply right up until the schools' decision letters started rolling in.

After most of my applications went in, I started to ask schools about their health care program. For if I move to another state, Blue Shield has already told me that they PROBABLY won't be able to transfer my policy to another Blue Shield, but that they could try. Not comforting is an understatement. At this point, a very good friend who works at a University told me that students are required to buy into the school's group plan or show proof of coverage. Great, I thought briefly. Because once I looked at the policies, I realized they had to be designed by Republicans.

Fordham University, a school that is founded by Jesuits and sits in the middle of Manhattan right next to Lincoln Center, has a policy with a $1,500 annual pharmacy maximum. Columbia University has the most generous policy -- with a $5,000 annual pharmacy max. The ABA [American Bar Association] itself offers a student health insurance plan -- but get this -- it has a $1,500 LIFETIME maximum for drug benefits. That would get me through about ten days. I questioned the ABA about this low limit and I was not ready for their reply. They explained that the policy was designed for younger, healthier students as more of a back-up plan in case an emergency exists during their time in school. It did not take into account adults with major health care needs like myself. She went on to say, "Well with your health care situation, why are you even bothering to look at schools outside California?"

And they wonder why people with disabilities do not become lawyers, given attitudes like that.

Thankfully I have always been one of those people who doesn't like to hear the word "NO" and now that the gauntlet was laid, I was well prepared to overcome it. I figured I had dealt with MUCH worse in my life than this; it was just going to take time and energy to figure it out.

But first I reminded her that I am part of a protected class under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1991, and that her statement was nothing short of hateful, ignorant and discriminatory.

Remember this fact -- I don't have the law degree yet. World be warned when I have it.

After many more conversations with schools, I came to realize that I was the first person they ever heard this from. Thinking about it, people who have been through what I have been through either have the good fortune to have some amazing disability policy -- not my case -- or are no longer with us -- obviously not my case. I was about to achieve what had not been done before. I was breaking the Red Ribbon Ceiling.

I am still in the middle of hearing from schools, but so far I have been accepted by six, partial scholarships at all of them, wait listed at two, and no's from two more. Santa Clara has stepped up to the plate in a big way, discussing in great detail their health insurance plan. Washburn also has done the same, turning me onto the Topeka AIDS Project, and offering to check if my drugs are covered by their State's ADAP program. I know that this will work out, and that I will somehow figure out how to maintain drug coverage that works for me. When that happens, I will definitely tell you.

But I reminded again how I got here, and the people before me that cannot take these very same steps. I keep David very close in my heart, knowing how proud he would be to see me go to Law School. I talk to him daily. There has never been a time when I could use his encouragement and advice more.

You see, I fully realize that in breaking this Red Ribbon Ceiling in Law School, I could not have done this without those who have gone before me and have made it possible for me to even be alive right now. People like Dr. Bob Gallo, for his groundbreaking research in discovering the virus, Larry Kramer for using his passion to bring about changes that we all needed to stay alive, and for each and every person I have known that is no longer with us today. I stand on all of your shoulders, gratefully.

When I enter the Fall class of whatever school it is that I choose to attend, I will be bringing a piece of all of you with me. I know am not in this alone. I make this move, in part, for my fallen friends, whom for whatever reason did not get the same breaks with the virus and the meds that I was lucky enough to get.

Yet I stand at this moment, both looking forward and looking over my shoulder at the past. I know as I move that as I leave the remnants of the past I led with David, and a huge part of me screams just to stay put. My head knows that the time has come to move on and claim my own life. My heart wishes it was 15 years ago and David was still alive. And staying in this neutral zone I have wallowed in for nearly two decades isn't going to work either.

Then I remember what this moment means to other people, people who I have yet to meet. Becoming the first long-term survivor to attend Law School is an honor that I should not look upon lightly or with any regret. And I know what David would say to me. He would want this for me. He would be proud that I have achieved this much with my life. He would celebrate the moment with me.

I move on to break this Red Ribbon Ceiling, with both a heavy heart and much pride.

Read Part One and Part Two of this series.

To contact Thomas, click here.

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Who Knew So Few T Cells Could Accomplish So Much?

Until just a few years ago, Thomas DeLorenzo never would have believed he could become an HIV/AIDS activist. Before he was "officially" diagnosed with HIV in 2001 -- with 60 T cells and a viral load of 300,000 -- DeLorenzo had been living in denial. And until 2006, he was too busy dealing with the many side effects of his own HIV meds to think about helping anyone else. Then he and his doctors finally figured out the perfect med combo -- and, finally, DeLorenzo felt that he actually had a future.

DeLorenzo lives in Los Angeles with his partner and is currently attending law school at Southwestern University School of Law. His career goals include making sure all Americans have access to adequate and affordable health care. Prior to law school, DeLorenzo worked as a publicist in the entertainment industry, representing many award-winning celebrities.

In 2006, The New York Times named him an Unsung Hero in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS for his Christmas Goody Bag Project for the residents of the San Antonio AIDS Foundation Hospice. In 2008, DeLorenzo was the San Antonio AIDS Foundation's Angel of the Year. DeLorenzo's alma mater, Hofstra University, named him Alumnus of the Month in August 2009 for his work on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS. DeLorenzo was recently appointed to the City of West Hollywood's Disabilities Advisory Board.

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