DO I HAM: TO GO?" SHERRY JOHNSON ASKED HER PARENTS. A week ago Sunday, fearing she might be shunned by fellow students, the 18-year-old senior was dreading the start of a new week. But arriving at Martin County High School in Stuart, Fla., she was hugged by classmate after classmate. "There were those who didn't know how to react," she says, "but I had a lot of support from my friends and teachers."

For Sherry Annette Johnson, it was one of the happiest days in a very unhappy year. On Jan. 6, she was told she was HIV positive. On May 5, she learned that she was the sixth person believed to have been infected by Dr. David Acer, the Jensen Beach, Fla., dentist who died of AIDS in 1990. Acer is the only known U.S. health-care worker to have passed the virus on to his patients—including Kimberly Bergalis, the University of Florida business major who died a lingering death, at age 23, in December 1991.

Two days after being informed, Sherry unburdened herself of her terrible secret. Addressing the press, the slight, blond teenager, who has yet to develop any symptoms of AIDS, was alternately subdued and angry. Flanked by her stepmother, Suzanne, her father, Johnnie, and her lawyer, Robert Montgomery, Sherry told of feeling betrayed by health-care officials who said—even after the Acer case became public—that it was all but impossible to be infected by one's dentist. Sherry's eyes welled with tears as she explained that she thought "everything was fine" when she went to Miami last December to take a preenlistment physical for the Navy. Then she said, "I got a registered letter to go down and talk." Straight out, she was told she was HIV positive.

When asked by a reporter if she thought Dr. Acer had intentionally spread his disease to her and the others—a suggestion for which there is no evidence—she replied, "Let's just say, thank God he's dead."

Acer came to Jensen Beach, the Johnson family's hometown 35 miles north of Palm Beach, in 1981 and worked mostly as a contract dentist for CIGNA Dental Health of Florida. It was through Suzanne's dental policy—she is an office manager for the Martin County Slate Attorney, while her husband is a lieutenant in the sheriffs office—that Sherry and other members of her family went to Acer.

After a Centers for Disease Control report in July 1990 linked Kimberly Bergalis's HIV infection to Acer, Suzanne and her two children accepted the state health department's offer of free testing. All were HIV negative. Secure, so they thought, in the knowledge that HIV infection from a health-care worker was highly unlikely, the family went no further. Sherry had had several fillings from Acer, but had undergone no procedures as invasive as extractions or root canals. She was, however, given local anesthesia involving needles.

Although the CDC report says that Johnson has had six sex partners (five tested negative for HIV; the sixth, whom Johnson says wore a condom, has not been located), her sexual behavior would seem irrelevant, since her DNA testing reveals an IIIV strain shared with Dr. Acer and his five other victims.

Attorney Montgomery—who has reached multimillion-dollar settlements with Acer's insurance carrier and CIGNA on behalf of three of these patients—filed suit this month for Sherry Johnson. Meanwhile, Sherry appears ready to pick up the torch that was carried by Bergalis, who spent her last days urging Congress to make the testing of health workers mandatory. "Nobody gave me the chance to walk out of [Dr. Acer's] office," she says. "I want to make sure everyone does [have such a choice]."

But Sherry, who began AZT treatments in February, has other plans too. She wants to attend nearby Indian River Community College next fall and would like to live as normal a life as she can. For weeks she had declined invitations for sleepovers for fear of infecting her friends. But on the evening she announced her plight to the world, 20 of her friends showed up at the Johnsons' small, comfortable ranch house to be with her. "As far as they're concerned, I'm the same person," says Sherry. "That hasn't changed."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
DON SIDER in Jensen Beach

  • Contributors:
  • Don Sider.