WESTMINSTER -- A week ago, the health counselor handed a 17-year-old girl news that irrevocably altered her life.
Instead of taking the track to college, "a beautiful little girl, with saucer eyes," is embarking on a battle to save her life, said James E. Rowe, a registered nurse and AIDS counselor.
The results of a blood test placed the girl in the HIV-positive world. The human immunodeficiency virus leads to AIDS, a fatal disease.
"I hope this battle is not lost," he said. "Teens are our most precious resource."
The magnitude of this disease changes a patient's whole life, said Mr. Rowe, 39.
"It affects family, finances, relationships, and it means dealing with society's nastiness."
At first, the news baffled the girl. She couldn't understand how she was at risk for the disease, when she had only had one sexual partner.
"That partner had contracted the disease in a previous relationship and had passed it on to her," he said.
As regional health services coordinator for Western Maryland, which includes Carroll County, Mr. Rowe said he sees similar reactions all too often. In the next 10 years, he said, the disease will devastate America's youth.
"Those of us in the health-care field don't need a crystal ball to know what is going to happen in the next few years," he said. "Heterosexuals are the fastest-growing group to contract AIDS, and highest among them are teens."
"I don't know how this happened" or "I only did it one time" are typical reactions, he said.
"Teens don't realize there is no such thing as safe sex," he said. "There is safer sex with the use of condoms. But, abstinence is the No. 1 way to protect themselves."
He plans to counsel his new patient often. He will provide diet and nutrition information and refer her to area doctors. He said he hopes she develops an optimistic attitude.
"Who said she can't go to college?" he said. "She is young and energetic. Better to learn to live with the disease."
Now, education on prevention is the best way to fight the disease, he said. He is critical of the Board of Education's recent refusal to show students "Teen AIDS in Focus," a video depicting teens with the disease.
"I would like those opposed to come with me and look at what teens with AIDS are going through."
He said people don't realize the intensity of the problem.
"This disease doesn't care. It is moving faster than we can measure and only wants a body to inhabit," he said. "Once there, it mutates and changes genetic makeup constantly."
Because each patient reacts differently, a cure is years away, he said.
"We almost need an individual cure for each person," he said. "We know the basic transmission routes, so we have to focus on prevention."
As part of a 43-member delegation, Mr. Rowe traveled to Eastern Europe in March to see how people there were coping with AIDS.
"Those countries are far behind us in medicine and technology, but they supersede us with compassion and understanding," he said.
Health professionals in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia were eager to "pick our brains," for any advances in fighting AIDS, he said. Many Europeans said the United States had entered the battle late, and that higher case numbers have resulted.
"The government misinterpreted this disease in 1981," he said. "It became the gay disease, and only gay men were tested originally. It's a disease of people, not sexual preference.
"It's not a moral issue; it's a public health crisis."
Mr. Rowe has been in the health-care field since he graduated from Francis Scott Key High School. He became a registered nurse after studying at South Baltimore General Hospital.
Seven years ago, he opened the first AIDS unit in a private nursing home in Baltimore.
"A young man, dying of AIDS and unable to find a hospital bed, pushed me to help other patients," he said.
He joined the state Health Department in 1988 as regional coordinator.
"I want to stay in the battle, but I don't know how much longer I can be on the front lines," he said of the "stressful and emotionally draining job."
He is "on call" most of the time. Many patients call his farmhouse, outside of Union Bridge. His farm, where he raises several animals and enjoys gardening, offers him solace.
"When spring comes to the farm, I know I have made it through another year," he said. "Delivering the new lambs gives me a renewed sense of hope."
Before long, he said, all of us will know somebody who has died of AIDS. He lost 17 patients last year, bringing to 35 the number of deaths of those in his care in the past four years.
"I have several patients dying now and I am their family," he said. "I don't give up until they draw their last breaths.
"Once you get to know your patients and look into their hearts, any fear dissipates."
His job doesn't end with a patient's death. He remains as a consultant to bereaved relatives. Many of those families donated to the $5,000 he needed for his trip to Europe.
"They tell me I am their inspiration," he said. "I am only rushing down the highway of life trying to make a difference."