Woman infected with AIDS by dentist sees talking about disease as her job

November 25, 1990|By Teresa Lane | Teresa Lane,Cox News Service

FORT PIERCE, Fla. -- She has graced the cover of "People" magazine and been the featured speaker on such television programs as the "Today" show and "A Current Affair," but 22-year-old Kimberly Bergalis says what she'd really like to do in the next six months is take a hot-air balloon ride over the Swiss Alps or go sky-diving.

Miss Bergalis, a Fort Pierce resident whose story was publicized across the country in September when health experts revealed she might have contracted acquired immune deficiency syndrome from her dentist, made a public appearance in her hometown last week.

Speaking before a roomful of eighth-graders, she said AIDS victims are not outcasts to be despised, but people to be loved.

"When I got sick, I had a couple of friends who were afraid to call me or write me because they didn't know what to say, but that was the worst thing they could do," said Miss Bergalis, whose appearance at St. Anastasia Roman Catholic Elementary School was televised by a CBS show, "48 Hours."

"That's what makes this disease so terrible -- not only do you have to cope with dying, you have to deal with the bad things people say about you," she said.

"I've met AIDS patients in Miami who've been abandoned by their families. Everybody makes mistakes, but no one deserves to suffer like this."

Although the majority of AIDS patients contract the disease by using infected intravenous drug needles or engaging in sexual relations, Miss Bergalis says she is a virgin who fits none of the high-risk categories.

The 40 students who filled St. Anastasia's Parish Center asked many questions after her 20-minute speech, and the University of Florida honors graduate answered all of them.

When one student asked her whether she was angry with Dr. David J. Acer, the Jensen Beach dentist suspected of infecting her with the virus that causes AIDS in December 1987, Ms. Bergalis said she wasn't sure.

"That's a hard question to answer," said Miss Bergalis, who has filed suit against Dr. Acer's estate and the insurance company that sent her to him for the extraction of two molars. "I don't think he said, 'Ha, I don't like this girl, so I'm going to give her AIDS.' He didn't do it on purpose, and he probably felt bad about it himself."

Dr. Acer died of AIDS-related cancer Sept. 3, three days after he wrote to his patients to tell them he was dying of AIDS. He wrote that he had followed safety guidelines in his work.

Since her plight was made public, Miss Bergalis has received many requests for prime-time interviews, morning-show spots and question-and-answer sessions with such personalities as Larry King and Phil Donahue.

She has granted several interviews and says she has come to regard them as an occupation.

"It's like my job now," she said. "Things like [talking to students] make me feel like I'm accomplishing something because I can tell these kids what it's really like.

"I was afraid of going public with the news at first because I didn't want people to egg my car or paint graffiti on my house, but once I got my strength back I realized this is my mission in life," she said. "If we can change the rules and make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else, it will be worth it."

Although she maintains a fairly active life of short trips to the beach, bicycle rides and daily trips to St. Anastasia school to pick up her youngest sister, Ms. Bergalis is in bed by 9 p.m. most days and must travel to Miami twice a month for experimental treatments using the drug DDI.

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