Woman lectures on AIDS, ending secrecy on virus dentist gave her

May 19, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

PALM CITY, Fla. -- The letter to her children is dated Oct. 27-28-29. Three days -- that's how long it took Barbara Webb, a 65-year-old retired schoolteacher, to give up her most closely held secret: She carries the AIDS virus.

"As you can gather from what has been told to you, NO ONE other than our immediate family is to have any indication of what has invaded our lives," wrote Mrs. Webb, who was known for months in the media as the mysterious "Patient B."

In February, unable to live any longer with her secret, Mrs. Webb publicly identified herself as one of only three known patients who apparently contracted the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, from a health-care worker.

Since then, she has lectured about AIDS to her former students, opened her home near the St. Lucie River in south Florida to dozens of inquisitive journalists and observed her life turned on its head.

0 For Barbara Webb, there are no more secrets.

She was in the dentist's chair, and Dr. David Acer was replacing an errant bridge. The doctor had lost weight, Mrs. Webb noticed. He looked bad, especially in the face. Mrs. Webb, who had just returned from a 40th wedding anniversary trip to Hawaii with her husband, had not heard the rumors that Dr. Acer had AIDS.

She poked her tongue over two filed teeth. How simple, she thought later, it would have been for Dr. Acer to have cut his hand on them and mixed his blood with hers. It was in such a moment, two summers ago, that Mrs. Webb now believes Dr. Acer may have passed the AIDS virus to her.

Mrs. Webb tested positive for the virus last September, two weeks after Dr. Acer died from acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Two other patients, 23-year-old Kimberly Bergalis and year-old Richard Driskill, also are believed to have gotten the AIDS virus from the dentist, according to the national Centers for Disease Control.

CDC investigators were never able to identify the means of transmission, but they speculated that Dr. Acer was lax in sterilization or personal hygiene, allowing contamination of his patients' blood.

That hardly matters now to Mrs. Webb, who says: "I'm very, very angry with this man not just for what he's done with our lives, but to end Kimberly's life. She's magnificent, intelligent and dying."

Ms. Bergalis -- whose youth, grace and intelligence ultimately made her a respected voice in AIDS education -- is the only one of the three to have developed full-blown AIDS. Her voice is silent now because she can no longer speak. She cannot move, and Mrs. Webb said Friday that the young woman in the last few days has, finally, come to welcome death.

"Not long ago, I called to tell her I had a firm grip on the torch," says a distraught Mrs. Webb. "The first time I met Kim, she said, 'Thank God, there's someone else to carry the torch. I'm too tired.'

"It was her voice on the telephone that day but it wasn't her voice. 'Ah-hoo,' was what she said. She was trying to say, 'I love you.' My Kim can't talk anymore, and soon there will be no Kim, just Richard and me."

*

As the 8 a.m. bell rings at Martin County High School in Stuart, Fla., hundreds of students filter through the humid halls.

In their midst, visiting lecturer Barbara Webb walks, delighted to be among the young people she holds close to her heart.

She taught only 10 years, all of them here, until fatigue from the AIDS drug AZT forced her to quit. Her "brag wall" of awards from students near the table at home where she makes stained-glass hangings tells the story: Most Unique, Most Academically Stimulating, Best All-Around, Wittiest, Most Influential, Best Personality, Teacher of the Year.

"Barbara kind of gave us direction," said Wanda Yarboro, the principal at Martin County High.

"We were giving students information about AIDS, but this gave it cohesiveness and real meaning for the kids. They have paid more attention to the fact that it does come home."

During a lecture to third-year French students on "le sida," or AIDS, Mrs. Webb is a commanding presence, even though she must sit because it tires her to stand.

"I don't have to cope with AIDS. I have to cope with fear," she tells the students.

"When I got sick recently, I thought, 'Oh my God, this is the start of AIDS.' My arm swelled up, and I thought, 'This is it.' I wondered, 'Will I lose everything?' It's scary what's happening to me, but if it should happen to anybody, it should happen to me because I know you listen to me. I ask you now: Please listen and don't stop listening."

The 9 a.m. bell rings. One by one, the students embrace her. "You are so brave," says one girl. "Thank you for coming."

During recent visits, the high school has begun to videotape Mrs. Webb's lectures on AIDS and on "Macbeth," her favorite of Shakespeare's plays, for Martin County High's archives.

"Always," Marlene Beard, the French teacher, says of the videotapes, "We want you for always."

*

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