The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a powerful tool for activism. Each panel is stitched together in remembrance of unique stories. Each thread is woven to raise awareness about stigma, loss and the ongoing impact of the pandemic. These panels travel the world to share the story of AIDS with a diverse range of individuals and communities.
Recently, the Quilt traveled to Moderna’s headquarters in Massachusetts for a Quilt panel making workshop, where the bright minds on the front lines of treatment learned about its purpose and impact. One of those scientists, however, did not need a lesson about the history of the Quilt. She created one of its first panels.
The Importance of AIDS Activism
As a young Stanford student in the 90, “studying” was not a sufficient way to describe how Nina Lin engaged with infectious diseases. Her desire to discover and understand the disease stretched beyond the classroom, and was more visceral than that. Back then, AIDS was still “a death sentence.” Today’s treatments were not available, and those with HIV typically did not live for long. Nina wanted not only to learn, but wanted more than anything to make a tangible difference. Not even her parents understood why she wanted to help so much.
It wasn’t just the science behind the virus that Nina cared about, but the individuals impacted by it. “These were people who were stigmatized for no reason,” Nina explained. “So many were disowned by their families and friends.” During her time at Stanford, Nina joined a program where she traveled to the homes of those with HIV, connecting them with the resources they needed to keep going. Around that same time, Nina befriended a young man with AIDS.
The Unique Story of a Boy with AIDS
Chad Janda, Nina’s assigned “buddy” in a volunteer program to provide emotional support for someone living with AIDS, was living in a shelter after his family disowned him for living a lifestyle that they did not believe in. He cross dressed and was a drag performer, looking angelic with his boyish features, blonde hair, and blue eyes. “We avoided talking about his rough and likely dark past,” Nina said. “We had a lot of shared interests that we talked about instead.” Nina and Chad first met to see a movie, discussing their love of ‘80s films throughout the night.
It wasn’t long, however, until Chad’s condition worsened and he was admitted to the Stanford Medical Hospital. Nina watched her friend’s angelic features fade with each visit. He grew weaker to the point where he couldn’t walk anymore. Nina and Chad would still go on their walks together, only now Nina had to push her friend around in his wheelchair. Stanford's Garden was a popular destination. “Chad loved his flowers,” Nina recalled. “We got yelled at a couple of times for picking flowers in that garden.”
One day, Nina walked over to the hospital to give Chad flowers she’d picked around campus as she had countless times before. On her way in, however, a nurse informed Nina that her friend had passed away the prior evening. Like thousands before him and thousands since, AIDS robbed the world of a beautiful life, and a story that was just beginning. Because Nina was not family, she was not allowed to see his body and say goodbye to him. Because of Chad’s circumstances, no family came to see him. “He died alone,” Nina sadly recalls. “Without a traditional memorial, I was afraid and sad that his life would be forgotten.”
Remembering a Life Lost to AIDS
Stories like Nina’s and Chad’s are why the AIDS Memorial Quilt exists. It allows for the remembrance of lives as the unique and special entities that they are. Nina had no previous sewing experience and no idea how to make a panel. “But I borrowed my friend’s sewing machine and went to work,” Nina recalled. “I sewed him a garden. The rose I had brought for him but never got to give him… I dried it and sewed it into a bag on the blanket, and left him a goodbye note. That was my way of remembering him.”
Chad’s garden has traveled around the United States, where his story and the stories of others lost to AIDS are still remembered today. When Chad’s panel was displayed on the football field-sized lawn of Washington, D.C.’s National Monument, Nina took her parents to visit it. “Seeing Chad’s panel there with thousands of other tributes to people lost to AIDS…” Nina said, “I think that was when they understood why I cared.”
The Continued Fight Against AIDS
Three decades later, Nina is still fighting for people suffering from HIV/AIDS. She went to Harvard Medical School, became an infectious disease physician, and then started a clinical research unit to engage with and enroll people with HIV into clinical trials to continue to improve their care at Boston University. “That hospital is the safety net in Massachusetts, and many of the people we help are minorities, suffer from addiction, have issues, mental health problems and/or homelessness.” Last year Nina joined Moderna to help develop and design studies to help prevent other infectious diseases.
While HIV/AIDS is not in the forefront of the public eye as it was in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it is still having a devastating impact, especially on minorities and the disadvantaged. As Nina put it: “This fight against Aids is not over.”
How You Can Make a Difference in the AIDS Community
Like Nina, you can remember a loved one by making a Quilt panel. You don’t have to be an artist or sewing expert to create a moving personal tribute remembering a life lost to AIDS.
You can also share the power of the Quilt with others by hosting the Quilt in your community. And by donating to the National AIDS Memorial, you can ensure that these stories will be remembered. By sharing the story of the struggle against HIV/AIDS, we remember, in perpetuity, the lives lost, we offer healing and hope to survivors, and we inspire new generations of activists in the fight against stigma, denial, and hate, for a just future. Donate today.