Three years later, in June 1991, the company finally forwarded its report to Deramus's doctor. By then Deramus had known for nearly two years what his mysterious ailment was: He had AIDS. He died just nine days later at 51. But in the 19 months that Deramus had been kept in the dark, he received no treatment for the disease and—unaware of the dangers—he and his wife had tried desperately to conceive a child. "In sleeping in my husband's arms, the safest place I knew of, I was sleeping with one of the deadliest diseases known to mankind," says Jody, who brought a negligence suit against Jackson National and is fighting to change disclosure practices across the country. "The company that insured his life knew all this so very well, yet neither I nor my husband could know."
For its part, Jackson National has denied any wrongdoing. It says it never received Deramus's written requests for the test results. "We weren't responsible for his death," says Mary Kator, the company's associate general counsel. On Sept. 10, a federal appeals court ruled against Deramus—on the grounds that Mississippi is one of 22 states in which insurance companies are not required to notify customers of medical test results.
Since 1993—two years after Frank Deramus's death—Jackson National has, like most insurers, voluntarily notified clients of HIV-positive diagnoses. Not satisfied, Jody Deramus is lobbying for federal legislation to require all companies to issue such notification. "She believes that nobody should endure the horrors she had to," says Deramus's sister Helen Bush of Houston.
Frank and Jody Deramus had been sweethearts in tiny Louisville, Miss., since she was 4 and he was 7. Rather than join friends in the back of the church, Frank loyally sat in the front pew to watch Jody play the organ. They attended the same schools, and Jody eventually followed Frank to Mississippi State University in Starkville. Married in 1961, they were inseparable, pursuing their careers, antiquing in New Orleans and filling their home with strains of their favorite pieces by Mozart and Bach. It was the picture of wedded fidelity. "Their lifestyle was almost mid-Victorian," says Herman Gotcher, a friend of Frank's from the University of Texas law school.
No one knows how Frank contracted the AIDS virus, but on a summer's stroll in the mid-'80s, Jody says, they encountered a man—"sickly and thin," she recalls—who had tripped over a hoe and cut himself. Frank helped him into the shade, she says, only later noticing that his own hands—severely blistered from a day of gardening—were awash in blood.
Not long afterward, his health began to deteriorate. For two years, more than 20 doctors in several states issued a variety of diagnoses—allergies, a hernia, even hypochondria—but never one of AIDS. In the meantime, they tried to have the child that had eluded them. "I was losing Frank," says Deramus. "At least I wanted his child."
In 1989, suspecting cancer, Frank abandoned his law practice and moved with his wife to Vienna, Va., to be near the National Cancer Institute. In October of that year, they were stunned when a doctor from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore delivered the news: not cancer, but AIDS. "We thought AIDS had nothing to do with us," says Deramus. They found comfort only in the knowledge that they would fight the disease together. "An HIV diagnosis causes such upheavals in marriages," Deramus says. "But our bond was too far along." Sadly, so was Frank's disease. His wife stayed with him, sleeping on a bed next to his, as he lay dying in a Virginia hospital.
At first, Jody, certain that she would contract the disease, etched her name into Frank's headstone. But seven years of testing have convinced her she is free of the virus. Yet she is not free of her memories, or of her outrage. Still living in Vienna, she has used part of the $500,000 from Frank's insurance policy to set up college endowments in his name and to battle for changes in the industry she feels wronged them.
"Nobody is secure as long as there is one state that does not require disclosure," Deramus says. "That is my mission: to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else. I owe it to Frank."
ANDREW MARTON in Vienna