Derek Canas knows all about overcoming adversity and beating the odds. It started when he was just a baby. At just three months old, it was discovered that he had a congenital heart defect and had to undergo open heart surgery.
“It was 1985 and after the surgery, I had to stay in the hospital and receive blood transfusions,” Canas recalled.
He went on to bounce back from the surgeries but even so, there was always something that seemed a bit off. For instance, he didn’t grow the way his peers grew.
“I was the smallest kid in class. I saw the same doctors and had the same issues for years. I had four pacemakers and after the fourth pacemaker, the doctor just told me that I was going to be small because of my heart,” he said.
Eventually, Canas got a new doctor who was suspicious that something else was going on. At the University of Florida medical facility, he underwent test upon test as doctors tried to get to the bottom of his health issues.
“They did a full medical review and saw that I had a blood transfusion in 1985 but that I never had a HIV test,” he said. “So I submitted to the test and two weeks later it came back positive. That was what had been causing all my medical issues … the not growing and just a lot of really bad medical issues.”
The news was devastating but rather than giving in to the disease, Canas decided to fight back. He continued living his life, later pursuing a career as a DJ, D-REK. He has also made a point to become an HIV-AIDS activist, sharing his story with the community and beyond.
“About three years ago, I started the End the Stigma campaign to bring awareness to HIV and AIDS across the country and world really,” he said.
Since beginning his crusade, he has been recognized by various organizations for his efforts. Canas has also spearheaded a number of local events aimed at spreading the truth. First and foremost, he makes sure to tell others that interacting with someone living with HIV or AIDS poses no risks.
“There’s no risk of being around in contact with anybody with the virus. It’s been proven that, as long as somebody is on their meds, it is completely safe to be around them,” he said.
“You can use the same utensils or towels. There is no risk. It is just very alarming … the amount of people who still don’t know that.”
Another area of focus for Canas is giving back. One of those events is fast approaching. In partnership with Peacock Productions, he will host a toy drive for children who are hospitalized.
“I want to give back, and I spent close to three years in hospitals as a child, when it’s all added up. I know it can be very monotonous with very long days,” he said. “I know how slowly time moves in a hospital. We just want to give them any kind of a break.”
The toy drive will be held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Copper Pig, 704 Mall Blvd, Brunswick. Donations can also be dropped off prior to the event at Coastal Collision Center, 2123 Norwich Street, Brunswick.
“I’ve got 1950s hot rod style suburban with the flame that is going to be our sleigh that will be used to deliver toys … we will leave from event and go to the hospital to go deliver the toys,” he said. “I will also have somebody dressed as the Grinch and some other characters there. The Grinch will go to the hospital too.”
There will also be discreet and rapid result HIV and AIDS testing on site with the Brunswick Health Department. It will include cheek swabs rather than drawing blood.
“It’s very easy and it’s one of the best presents you can give yourself — a clean bill of health,” Canas said. “People don’t realize that. But everyone should pay better attention because it fades very fast.”
Coastal People appears Mondays. Contact Lindsey Adkison at email@example.com or at 265-8320, ext. 346 to suggest a person for a column