Overcoming HIV

Vaughn Ripley with his wife, Kristine; daughter, Trinity; and son, Xander in the backyard of their Brunswick home. Twenty-four years ago Ripley discovered he was HIV-positive following blood transfusions.

BRUNSWICK -- Vaughn Ripley was never one for ultimatums.

While working for a baby furniture delivery company, his boss threatened that if Ripley threw another snowball at him, he'd be fired.

Ripley was fired on the spot after his snowball smashed into his boss' face.

Before that, on Jan. 3, 1987, at the age of 19, Ripley was told by the family physician, he was HIV-positive. Although the doctor didn't provide a time frame, it was expected that Ripley would die in the near future.

Twenty-four years after that diagnosis, Ripley is the vice president of vendor integration for a software company in Northern Virginia. He lives in Brunswick with his wife, Kristine; daughter, Trinity; and son, Xander.

"There's no easier way to explain it than I'm blessed," he said. "This is my reward for all the struggles that I fought through."

In his book, "Survivor: One Man's Battle with HIV, Hemophilia, and Hepatitis C," released in September 2010, Ripley outlines his struggles and conquests since being diagnosed with the disease.

A lifelong hemophiliac, a disorder in which one of the normal blood-clotting factors is missing or reduced, he was infused with tainted blood during a transfusion sometime between 1985 and 1987.

Ripley took to swimming as a child since contact sports were out of the question. In the book, he describes his first visit to the community pool after being diagnosed HIV-positive.

Walking through the gates, he could feel everyone watching him and believed they were all whispering about him and his condition. After jumping in and still feeling like everyone was watching him, he got out and started telling his friend he might leave.

Then a lifeguard walked up and asked, "Do you have AIDS?"

After telling the lifeguard he didn't, he grabbed his things and rushed out, his pace quickening as he was in the parking lot.

He wrote, "Finally I ran. I felt betrayed by my community. My friends. My support system. No one should have to go through something this horrendous. It scarred me for life."

Incidents like this led Ripley into alcohol and drug addictions, pushing him to the brink of committing suicide. As a last ditch attempt, Ripley dropped to his knees and prayed. At first cursing God for putting him through all of this, but then changing his tone, asking for help.

That next day, a childhood friend from church that he hadn't seen in years showed up at his front door looking for him.

"There was no question here what's going on, this is divine intervention," Ripley said, looking back on that day.

Since then, Ripley has transformed himself from an addicted drug user to a man with a goal of completing 100 triathlons.

Living fit

Despite battling HIV for almost a quarter of a century, Ripley, a certified personal trainer, believes he is in the best shape of his life.

"I'm extremely ecstatic about my fitness status," he said.

His workout routine is as follows:

n Bikes three days a week, 15 to 40 miles each ride

n Runs three days a week, 3 to 10 miles each run

n Swims three days a week, 1 mile each swim

n Weight lifting two days a week, 30-minute full body routine

"I try to eat right, too, but man I'm a sucker for junk food," he said.

For Ripley, more so than others, he believes his dedication to fitness is what's keeping him alive.

"I don't think there's any question, I will continue for the remainder of my life being a really fit person," he said.

Setting seemingly impossible goals is just the way Ripley lives. When he fell in love with triathlons he asked himself, "What is a really tough goal that is almost impossible to achieve?"

His answer.

A hundred triathlons.

Ripley still has 99 more triathlons to go before he reaches his goal, but he has two more scheduled in August.

"This is the way I roll," he said.

Life with HIV

After an ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), which allowed Ripley and his wife to have children without the risk of transmitting HIV, Ripley said living with HIV doesn't impact him much at this stage of his life.

In fact, living with hemophilia has a bigger impact than HIV, he said.

There are some things he would love to do, such as motocross, but due to the bleeding disorder, he's limited in what he can do.

Ripley said he's constantly worried in circumstances where he can get an injury, such as a game of pick-up basketball, where he might start bleeding, but he's confident he won't infect anybody else.

"At the same time, it's something that weighs heavily on your mind," he said. "I can't just tell you I go through life willy-nilly or carefree."

In any situation where he could get an injury and start bleeding, Ripley said he's upfront about his condition with people and discusses it with them beforehand, but that's still a struggle.

"It's easier than it has been, he said."

In the late 1980s, Ripley said he was either considered gay or an intravenous drug user because of HIV.

But the increased awareness has helped curb the stigma associated with the disease, although there's still more to be done.

He credits much of that awareness to pro basketball player Magic Johnson admitting he was diagnosed with HIV.

"It's absolutely done a complete 180," Ripley said on how the speculation of HIV has changed since the 1980s. "I think we've turned the whole world upside down with how they believe or feel about it."

Motivational speaking

In the beginning of Ripley's book is a quote from the film "The Outlaw Josey Wales," which reads "Dyin' ain't much of a livin' boy."

Ripley has lived his life by that line ever since his friend visited him just as he was contemplating suicide, he said.

Now with his life experiences, he's hoping to become an inspirational speaker. His first program, "Maximizing Your Life," is scheduled for Sunday at 12:15 p.m. at Middletown United Methodist Church.

"I want them to see that we're all capable of anything in life," he said. "It's just a matter of what do you focus on and how do you pay attention to your goals."

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