The Unlikeliest Victim
06/03/1991 at 01:00 AM EDT
AMONG PEOPLE AT RISK FOR CONTRACTING AIDS, Barbara Webb, a 65-year-old grandmother married to the same man for 41 years, seemed to rank right at the bottom. She was such an unlikely candidate that the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services clinic where she was found to be HIV positive asked her to return for a second test—using the ruse that the vial containing her blood had been broken. "They couldn't believe this little old lady had tested positive," says Webb.
In fact, Webb belongs to a tiny but alarming new risk group: patients of health professionals who are HIV positive. A resident of Palm City, Fla., she was under the care of David Acer, the Jensen Beach dentist who died of AIDS last September and who is believed to have passed the virus to Kimberly Bergalis, 23 (PEOPLE, Oct. 22,1990), during a routine tooth extraction. Following a genetic analysis that linked Bergalis's HIV to Acer's, Florida health officials offered a free test to each of the dentist's 2,400 patients.
When Barbara and her husband, Bob, 70, a retired elevator engineer who was also an Acer patient, read about the Bergalis case in a local newspaper, she urged that they both be tested. "I said, 'Bob, let's go,' " she recalls. "He thought I was crazy." Yet Barbara was incredulous when she heard the results. "It was like being hit in the solar plexus by a heavy weight," she says. "It was so far beyond my comprehension. I was in this crazy whirl."
The finding, along with that of a third Acer patient, 31-year-old citrus plant supervisor Richard Driskill, whose HIV was also genetically-matched to Acer's, dispelled any illusions that the Bergalis case was an aberration. The American Medical Association and the American Dental Association now urge that all medical practitioners who know they are HIV positive warn their patients about their condition or voluntarily give up surgery. And the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta are working on revised guidelines that may set stricter limits for infected healthcare workers.
Searching her memory for clues about how she might have become infected, Webb recalled an occasion in 1989, when she nicked her tongue on the sharp edge of a tooth Acer was capping. Her tongue bled, and Webb speculates that Acer may have also pierced his glove and skin during that same episode.
Though she has yet to experience the symptoms of AIDS itself, Webb has suffered considerable discomfort in recent months. Countless blood tests have made her feel like "Dracula's delight," she says. And treatments with AZT, to retard the onset of AIDS symptoms, and pentamidine, an inhalant that protects against pneumonia, have sapped Webb's energy. "When I'm feeling bad, it's very scary," says Webb. "It starts in the marrow of my bones and goes to the outside of my skin. It's like a dull toothache, and with it comes such an overwhelming tiredness." The ordeal has also left Webb emotionally exhausted. "Normally I'm a very positive person," she says. "But now I'll sometimes cry until I can't cry anymore."
The tears came in torrents three months ago, when Webb concluded she could no longer teach. The mother of three children, who now range in age from 36 to 40, Webb had returned to college to earn an education degree, and, at age 52, she began teaching literature in high school. Voted Teacher of the Year in 1986 at Martin County High in Stuart, Fla., she retired two years later because of high blood pressure. But she had continued to work as a substitute and was heartbroken when the debilitating effects of AZT made it impossible for her to manage even a diminished load.
"When that fateful day came, I was so tired I was dragging," she says. "I knew I couldn't go back and cope with 100 individuals another day." When Webb publicly acknowledged for the first time that she had been stricken with HIV, she feared negative reaction; instead, she was deluged with expressions of love and support from her colleagues and students. "That was one of the most overwhelming things that's happened in my entire life," she says. "There has not been one negative reaction. It's awe-inspiring."
Webb feels a debt of gratitude to Bergalis for having sounded the alert about Dr. Acer. "Kim prolonged my life by many years," Webb says. "I wouldn't have gotten treatment without her." After she tested positive, Webb consulted with Bergalis by phone. "We reversed roles," Webb says. "She would advise me: 'Now if you get tired, just sit down. Don't push.' "
Bergalis recently received $1 million from CNA, Acer's malpractice-insurance company, and has reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with CIGNA Dental Health, the insurance plan that recommended Acer to her in late 1987. In the meantime, Bergalis's lawyer, Robert Montgomery, is filing similar claims against CNA and CIGNA on behalf of Webb and Driskill.
Webb makes no attempt to hide her bitterness toward Acer. "I had more energy than I knew what to do with," she says. "I loved teaching more than almost anything in my life. I resent that this has been taken away from me by Dr. Acer. I'm angry because he didn't have the human decency to warn his patients that he might be a threat to them."
Webb is determined, though, not to let this anger undermine her new mission: She wants to help young people overcome their fear of publicly admitting they have AIDS. She has already returned to speak at her old school and plans to visit others. "I don't say, 'Oh, poor me, I'm rapidly sliding toward the Pearly Gates,' " says Webb. "While I still have the strength, I want to make a difference."
DON SIDER in Palm City