'I had unsafe sex, it cost me my life': Words endure after AIDS victim dies

July 20, 1992|By Phyllis Brill | Phyllis Brill,Staff Writer

Ginger Bowen never thought it could happen to her -- a middle-class, well-educated professional, the daughter of a retired judge, the wife of a Congregationalist minister. She didn't do drugs, didn't have a bisexual lover, didn't live in the inner city.

She got AIDS anyway.

Soon after being diagnosed HIV-positive, the 38-year-old Bel Air paralegal set out to warn other women -- particularly white, middle-class, heterosexual women in the suburbs who never used intravenous drugs -- not to be fooled so easily.

You can get AIDS from straight sex, she told them. And it can kill you.

"She made a crusade of the rest of her life," said Dick Hammond, her husband of 2 1/2 years. And when she died May 18, she had become an effective AIDS activist in northeastern Maryland.

Ms. Bowen died less than a year after receiving the terrible news and before she could even see herself on a "Donahue" segment about women living with AIDS, taped last winter. (The segment will air at 9 a.m. Thursday on Baltimore's WMAR-TV, Channel 2).

Ms. Bowen, the daughter of a prominent Calvert County couple, is remembered for the zest she brought to life, even after AIDS had drained her of most of her physical energy.

Even in her last days, she felt compelled to warn others.

"I figure this whole disease has been a secret too long," she told a reporter from The Sun last fall. "I want to be part of breaking down the secrets."

So she took her message into the community, lecturing community groups, youth groups, churches and teen-parenting classes, with Harford County's health department sponsoring her. And she became a regular speaker in the Cecil County schools.

"Her message was simple," says Barbara Hernan, regional AIDS educator for Harford, Cecil and Kent counties. "It was, 'I had unsafe sex, and it cost me my life.' She was funny, bright and educated, and she came across in a group as just one person talking honestly to another."

In March, Ms. Bowen took her crusade to a much larger audience, when she went to New York to take part in a pre-recorded "Donahue" television program.

There, as a member of a panel of women with AIDS, she told her personal story of contracting HIV, which causes AIDS, through heterosexual contact, probably as long as a decade ago when she was between marriages. Because the latency period for HIV is eight to 10 years, the virus may lie dormant that long before any symptoms emerge.

The news of his wife's positive HIV test hit like a thunderbolt, says Mr. Hammond, a reserve U.S. Army chaplain with the 100th Station Hospital in Baltimore. Like so many other middle-class professionals, the couple had lived under the assumption that AIDS isn't an issue for ordinary, middle-aged, heterosexual, happily married people.

But in fact Ms. Bowen had been sickly for three full years and had been hospitalized twice before even being tested for HIV. While her body wrestled with symptoms of a variety of illnesses typical in HIV-positive people, she and her doctors considered every other cause imaginable for her recurring illness -- from lupus to "yuppie flu" to the stress of a new marriage.

Not until last summer, while hospitalized with severe pneumonia, did she have an HIV test. By then, she had full-blown AIDS, developed from the virus she likely contracted sometime in the early 1980s.

"If she had known earlier, she might be here today. That's the tragedy," said Mr. Hammond, who has tested negative for HIV.

That's the gist of the message Ms. Bowen and other AIDS educators have tried to relay to young people, particularly females.

"Women are the fastest-growing group at risk today for HIV infections," says Ms. Hernan, adding that more than a third of the women who reported having AIDS in 1991 contracted the disease through heterosexual contact.

Ms. Hernan says 80,000 women in the United States were estimated to be HIV-infected in 1991, "and yet we're still hearing most about IV drug users and gay men."

Ms. Bowen tried to change that.

"Ginger was always open and willing to talk. She realized that the more you keep this a secret, the more a stigma is attached to it," says Ms. Hernan.

"When she went on the Donahue program, I think she hoped some of the many women watching would see themselves in her and realize they are at risk for HIV and do something about it."

Ms. Bowen's health deteriorated rapidly in the last months of her life. Though she continued to visit with young people, she was often very weak, and was constantly tired. She temporarily lost her vision in the winter before her death and developed pneumonia again at the end of her illness.

She died peacefully at home in the house in Bel Air that she and her husband had bought a few months earlier.

These days, Mr. Hammond passes the long summer evenings on the back porch of that home looking through photographs of the wife he says he barely got to know.

He and Ms. Bowen had met in the spring of 1989, not long after she took a job as a paralegal in Aberdeen. They married that fall. Soon after, she began experiencing recurring weakness and became more and more sickly.

"She was such a dynamic person, even when she was sick," Mr. Hammond said. "You could still see it in her eyes."

pTC

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