The United States has been hit particularly hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time, over 80,000 people have died in the United States. The deaths are impacting people from every community, including people with HIV. At the end of April, Deloris Dockrey died from COVID-19. She was a long-term survivor of HIV and a well-known figure in the HIV community, particularly for her work on the needs of women living with HIV. To learn more about the life of Deloris Dockrey, Terri Wilder spoke with Martha Cameron, M.P.H., the regional coordinator for the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW), North America. According to their website, ICW North America exists to lead efforts to secure and improve the quality of life for women living with HIV in Canada and the United States. They do this by mobilizing, organizing, advocating, mentoring, and raising consciousness on the issues and policies that directly impact their lives. Martha Cameron is actively involved in various HIV policy, advocacy, and research forums, including Positive Women’s Network, the United States People Living with HIV Caucus, and the D.C. Center for AIDS research. She has a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s in public health.
Terri Wilder: So, let me first say I’m really sorry about the death of Deloris. I’m sure that this is a very difficult time for people who worked with her and love her. And I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. And I’d really love to start at the beginning. When did you first meet Deloris?
Martha Cameron: I met Deloris in 2010 or 2011, but I know exactly where it was. We were in Boston, Massachusetts, and we were at a training for the National Quality Center, which is an agency of HRSA [the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration] that does quality of care for HIV service providers that are funded through the Ryan White program.
TW: Great. So what was your first impression of Deloris?
MC: She immediately inspired me. I was new to HIV advocacy in the U.S. And I was there primarily as a “consumer” of HIV services, which in the HRSA guidelines is required to be part of a clinical care team. I believe that Deloris was there. By that time, she was already working for Hyacinth in a capacity of clinical director. But she identified herself as also a woman living with HIV in that meeting. And that really gave me a lot of confidence, because I was feeling like I was by myself and alone. And I saw this woman who not only was HIV positive, but she was also a director in an organization that provided services. And I was also educated. I already had my bachelor’s, but she told me she had a master’s degree. And just all my conversations that I had with her during that meeting inspired everything that I have done since in HIV advocacy and all the work that I do.
TW: So Deloris was diagnosed with HIV in 1994. And that was before protease inhibitors became widely available. And I’ve read about her in different places—at that time, she was very scared about getting diagnosed. And I’m wondering if she ever talked to you about her time getting diagnosed and what that was like for her?
MC: Yes. One of the things that Deloris and I shared in particular was that we were both immigrants. We were both Black women. And I remember just one intimate conversation that I had with her at a retreat for the International Community of Women Living with HIV, about how we got where we were. One of the things that came out of that is the fear and the shame that she felt when she was newly diagnosed and also pregnant with her son. And, you know, stigma. And HIV came with a lot of stigma. But I think one of the things that people don’t even understand or maybe underestimate is the stigma that is experienced within families for something that is considered shameful and bringing shame onto the family. And we talked about that, and she talked about the fear of having this child, and she talked about the fear of coming to the United States and raising her son as a single mom. And, you know, she just talked about all the challenges that came with that and the determination that she had had to work through that. And at the time that we’re having this conversation, she had just purchased her first home in the United States that she was sharing with her son. And for her it was such a huge achievement, considering everything that she had been through as a woman living with HIV, as an immigrant, and as a Black woman in the United States.
TW: She was very involved in the International Community of Women Living with HIV. Can you talk about her involvement? What particular things did she get involved in?
MC: There was so much. Her original involvement was with GNP-plus, which is the Global Network of People Living with HIV. And my understanding is that that’s how she came to be aware of or know about the International Community of Women Living with HIV, which as you described is this trailblazing organization. There is no other network of women living with HIV globally. It was founded before the U.S. network was founded. There is a global network that was founded at the International AIDS Conference in 1992. She was a part of that; then she came to be a part of the ICW around the 2004, 2005 timeframe. And during that time, they started conceptualizing a chapter for North America.
The other chapters are in places where, you know, that are not as resourced as the United States. So we have networks in Africa. We have networks in Eastern Europe and Asia Pacific and the Latin American region. And I think that there was this misconception that because the U.S. and North America generally is called wealthy, that women living with HIV in North America did not have challenges. And Deloris Dockrey and other founding members pushed through the idea of having a network for North America, because they knew that, especially, Black women and people of color in the U.S. were very challenged when it came to access to services. I know that when I started working with her in 2014, 2015, she was an unpaid volunteer that literally set up the structure of ICW in North America, including registering the organization, setting it up as a 501c3, opening bank accounts, and hiring its first staff.
TW: So on the International Community of Women Living with HIV’s Facebook page, it states “For anyone that knew Deloris, she was a ray of light and positivity, as well as a fierce advocate for the rights of people living with HIV, in particular women. She was a mentor to many who shared her knowledge and inspired numerous others.” You know, as I looked around social media, I saw several people mentioning her role as a mentor. Can you talk about that? It seems like lots of people were inspired by her and felt mentored by her.
MC: Yeah. That’s why I actually felt almost inadequate to do this interview by myself. The person who called me about her death was a woman called Naina Khanna, who is the executive director of Positive Women’s Network. Deloris had been on the board of Positive Women’s Network and had mentored many women that were part of Positive Women’s Network USA, including Naina herself. I think what Deloris managed to do is find the human side of people in this struggle that we face. The advocacy is done at so many levels. You know, we have to do advocacy at the national levels, because of policies that affect people living with HIV, and our own local and community levels. And then there are those personal support groups and psychosocial support groups, or you reach out to women individually. Deloris had a knack for talking to leaders of people [with HIV] organizations, because she knew that they were also people that were HIV positive and carry the burden not only for themselves, but for others.
And, you know, for women’s organizations, sometimes we’re fighting for the same pots of money, and sometimes there are personality clashes. Deloris was the peacemaker. Deloris was the person who could sit people down and help reason with them and help them see the bigger picture. That we’re all in this for one reason, and we’re all fighting for the same people. I saw that capacity in her at the global level at the International Community of Women Living with HIV. She was a member of the international steering committee, which was essentially the global board of directors. It had representation from all the regions in the world. And I just saw her mediate and navigate difficult conversations with just a soft voice, with a hand around your shoulder, with holding the hands of two people that may have differences and bringing them together. I don’t really believe I have ever seen anybody else with that capacity. She was the friend to everybody. And whether it was a governor, whether it was a director, whether it was just a simple woman living with HIV, she had the same demeanor, the same time for you, and the same capacity to listen.
TW: So, as I mentioned earlier, Deloris died at the end of April from complications from COVID-19. Is there anything that folks know about what happened in terms of her getting COVID-19? Is there anything happening in terms of the community coming together to celebrate her life?
MC: Yes, what I know personally from having spoken to her son is that there was another family member that ended up contracting COVID-19, and I believe, especially with communities like ours, communities of immigrants, I really believe that they were close in probably taking care of this family member. And ultimately, this family member did end up having to go to hospital and ended up dying without any contact from the family. And this was very difficult for Deloris (as it was shared to me by a family member), and so she was aware that she had been exposed. She was aware that she was high risk, because she had other comorbidities, and specifically requested as she got sick that she would not like to go to the hospital and would prefer to die at home. I asked the family member, “Was it a difficult death?” You know, being that she didn’t go to the hospital. And she didn’t end up having access to things like ventilators and so on and so forth. And he shared that she was surrounded by her family. She was very aware it was coming. And she died rather peacefully for somebody who had been exposed to COVID-19. This gave me a lot of comfort, but it also brought to light some of the things that I really believe came out recently in terms of the way people of color are being treated in hospitals or the access to care that they’re getting. To determine the terms of the way she would go out, but she preferred to go surrounded by family. I think she wanted to die with dignity.
TW: So what do you think Deloris will be most remembered for?
MC: Something came across my Facebook a few days ago where New Jersey Governor Murphy had actually honored Deloris. She had served on a local, the New Jersey HIV Planning Group. She was a member of another group called the United States People Living with HIV Caucus. And then, of course, she was a member of these two huge networks, the Positive Women’s Network and the ICW North America. There is no one way to remember Deloris, other than a huge giant in terms of advocacy for people living with HIV, but most specifically for the women that she represented. She’s a giant. I can’t think of any other word.
The ICW North America that she had worked so hard to put together is actually now just launching after she had done all the groundwork. We now have a strategic plan that is going to be global that is going to try and reach as many women [as possible] who have been living with HIV. And she was so excited about this. I have emails less than three days before she died, saying how she wanted to be a part of this event and was very excited about it. And so we decided to proceed with that event, and make it in memory of Deloris. And there were so many people who came on just to be able to share about Deloris. So that was what we did.
Also, at the global level, GNP-plus, ICW, and PWN did a combined statement to just honor her and acknowledge her death in the community. And that it was a big blow for us. And then, of course, like I said, the governor of New Jersey actually also honored her. So, I do believe that there are different ways that people are honoring her. And we will continue to mourn her for a long time.
TW: Well, she sounds like an amazing woman. And thank you so much for sharing all these stories with me. It’s so important to say people’s name out loud and to remember them.
MC: Yes, I agree. And I appreciate the opportunity to speak about her—and like I said, I just feel really inadequate, because I know there’s more people than I can count who can say more about her. And I would really love that to be acknowledged, because she was such an amazing woman. And, you know, there’s so much more to be told about her. I can just say personally that even the work that I decided to do for ICW North America was simply because she inspired me. She brought me on. And she introduced me to the board of directors, and as we were doing the work, I was invited to actually handle the day-to-day work until we’re able to hire somebody. And I did it because I didn’t want to disappoint her. I wanted her life and legacy to go on and be remembered.
I shared with someone the other day that I felt a bit traumatized because I lost my mother to HIV. Right before I graduated from undergrad. And my mother had raised me as a single mother. You know, me and my siblings, very similar to what Deloris was doing. And she was going to be very excited about my graduation. She had been talking about it for a long time. She was always excited about me going to college, and she died within a week before I graduated. And this ICW launch that we had last Thursday, to me, felt like it was going to be a graduation, showing these founding members like Deloris that your legacy will live on—we’ve done it—and that we are going to carry the torch and do the work that you’ve done. And it still kind of blows my mind that she died a couple of days before that.