In Need of Hope

updated 07/24/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In a stark waiting room in the Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa, a dozen young mothers greet Mary Fisher with sullen, tired faces. She is a white woman from thousands of miles away, and they feel little kinship with her. But as Fisher speaks, the women, each HIV-positive, each clutching a baby she fears could someday be exposed to the virus, begin to warm to the stranger as they realize she is not as different as they first imagined. "We're all the same—we face this together," says Fisher, 52, giving each woman a hug, each infant a reassuring pat. "I feel like you all. That is why I'm here."

It has been nine years since Fisher, now of Nyack, N.Y., tested positive for the deadly AIDS virus, and eight since she shook the American public with a speech at the Republican National Convention in which she made vividly clear in words and by example that no one, not even an affluent, conservative straight woman, was immune to the threat of AIDS. Since that moment, she has been one of the nation's most outspoken AIDS activists, warning youths against unsafe sex and raising millions for medical research. But even after what she had seen here, her eyes were opened when she joined a White House delegation that toured Africa in January to assess the impact of AIDS on that continent. "The African landscape is dominated by acres and acres of AIDS orphans," she says. "I will not let the world leave them behind."

While 850,000 Americans are already HIV-positive and a study released at this month's international AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa, says another 5 million are at risk because of their sex and drug habits, the numbers are far worse in Africa. There, more than 24.5 million carry the virus and almost 11,000 more are infected every day. Hoping to raise awareness of the plight in Africa—and with it more funding for education and research—Fisher returned last month for a weeklong visit of ravaged villages and crowded clinics. "Mary is trying to help people understand that what we see in Africa today is just the tip of the iceberg," says White House AIDS director Sandra Thurmond. "We are at the beginning of an epidemic, not at the end—and with no cure in sight."

Fisher's was a personal mission as well. Because the drugs used to control her illness also sapped her strength, Fisher stopped taking them in late 1998. But her immune system is once again under attack, and she will soon have to resume the regimen. "I'm hurrying, because I don't know how tired I'll be once I go back on the medicine," she says. Yet there was even more to her trip. She took her sons—Max, 12, and Zack, 10—wanting them to witness what she had. "I want my sons to experience Africa," she says. "I want them to know how blessed we are and how we cannot forget these people."

Fisher's determination is that of a survivor. Born in Louisville, Ky., in 1948, she was 4 when her homemaker mother, Marjorie, now 77, divorced her father and later married Max Fisher, now 92, who had made a fortune in oil, gas and real estate. Raised in Detroit, she dropped out of the University of Michigan to work for a TV station, then for the Gerald Ford White House doing advance preparation for presidential trips. After a one-year marriage to a lawyer she moved to New York City, where she met printmaker Brian Campbell, whom she married in 1987. "He was an incredible artist and did wonderful things for me and my art," says Fisher, herself a painter. They relocated to Boca Raton, Fla., where they were raising Max and Zack (both HIV-negative) in 1990 when Campbell asked for a divorce. In July 1991 he called to say he had HIV—contracted, he believed, from sharing a needle while using drugs before they had met. Soon she learned that he had transmitted the virus sexually to her.

Fisher decided to speak out—most famously at the GOP convention, where she told her young sons, "I will not rest...until I have done all I can to make your world safe." Instantly she became one of the nation's most recognized HIV carriers, writing books, giving speeches and founding a Washington, D.C., organization to support families stricken by AIDS. (After it closed in March, she started an AIDS-research fund.)

All the while, Fisher, who moved to Nyack in 1996, waged a battle for her own health, taking up to 20 pills a day by 1998. Though they kept serious illness at bay, they also left her drained. That December she went off the drugs, knowing it might put her in danger but would give her more energy. "Rather than 100 years of lying around like a vegetable," Fisher says, "I would rather have fewer years and do wonderful things with my children."

Thus, the family's trip to Africa. Their first stop was Soweto, where they saw the epidemic's devastation firsthand at Bethany House, an orphanage for children whose parents had fallen victim to AIDS. As they pulled up, two dozen orphans, arms outstretched, surrounded their SUV. Max handed out candy, and dusty-faced children tugged at Fisher's shirttail, begging to hold her hand. When she entered the dreary cottage, toddlers scrambled to hug and kiss her.

The next morning, during a Soweto hospice visit, workers alerted Fisher to a man dying of AIDS at a nearby home. Within minutes she stepped into the dark four-room shack where Maphumzane Mlambo, 25, lay on a mattress on the floor, so ashamed that he had yet to tell his friends of his disease. Fisher's mission was simply to deliver dignity. "I have AIDS, and I wanted to tell you that you're not alone," she said, stooping to caress his face. "I know you don't know me, but I love you."

Later, at Cape Town's elite Rusten-berg Girls High School, she told an auditorium full of mostly white, uniformed schoolgirls that, at current rates, one in three South Africans will be infected with HIV within a decade. "I hope you will take your education and your privileges and your courage," she said, "and spend it all on behalf of those who are slipping away with AIDS."

Everywhere, Fisher's impact was clear—including at the Soweto hospital, where she watched Max and Zack snap Polaroids and hand them to the delighted women, who were buoyed, if only for a moment, by the visit. "I'll remember you," she told the women, "and you'll remember me."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Jane Sims Podesta in South Africa

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