Brunswick student makes condition known to public


December 21, 1992|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

BRUNSWICK -- For Sabrina Jones and hundreds of others in this rural Frederick County community, 17-year-old Cindy Gibson has put a face on AIDS.

Until two weeks ago, the disease remained behind newspaper headlines and a topic for study in health classes.

But Cindy changed that when she revealed to her classmates and the community that she had contracted the fatal disease from a blood transfusion several years ago.

"It's made people realize it can happen to anybody," said Sabrina, a sophomore at Brunswick High School. "She's a great person. She doesn't deserve this. People here didn't think it could happen to them. They should realize that it can happen to anybody."

Cindy's disclosure has prompted public forums to discuss the disease, and an outpouring of compassion and concern from schoolmates and neighbors in this close-knit community on the Potomac River.

"The reaction has been marvelous," said Trisha Grove, AIDS coordinator for Frederick County's Health Department.

At Brunswick High School, where Cindy attends classes in Spanish, algebra and chemistry, the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, said the principal, Melvin Whitfield.

"I would say there's been a rallying to Cindy's side," Mr. Whitfield said. "Obviously, you think about the 1980s and the hysteria there was then. But people are much more aware now. Students here have accepted her. They support the young lady."

At school and elsewhere, friends and well-wishers have embraced the slender teen-ager. During her Saturday morning bowling league, Cindy frequently exchanged high-fives and hugs with teammates and relatives.

Nobody has shunned the girl.

"People at school are very supportive," added Sabrina, who is Cindy's cousin. "Everybody knows everybody because it's a small place. Nobody's been mean. Nobody's afraid to touch her."

Mr. Whitfield credited AIDS education in the classroom, and media attention, with helping to inform students and their parents about the disease and prevent any hysteria. Maryland students -- unless their parents object -- receive AIDS prevention and education courses in elementary, middle and high school.

Michele Prumo, a school health services specialist for the Maryland Department of Education, wasn't surprised by the community backing Cindy has received.

Cases involving teen-agers in Baltimore and Caroline counties met similar reactions, she said, noting that, legally, students can't be discriminated against because of AIDS.

"There was no negative reaction in those cases either," she said. "I think we've passed that. There's a lot of concern out there. These situations are usually handled well."

Since Jan. 1, 1981, there have been 5,044 reported cases of AIDS in Maryland, according to state officials. Among 13- to 19-year-olds, there have been 21 reported cases.

"Seventeen is an unusual age to have the disease," said Dr. John Bartlett, chief of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University. "There is some HIV infection in teen-agers. They may have the virus but not the disease. A teen-ager who has the virus at age 15 might not see the disease until age 25."

More cases have been reported in Maryland among those age 12 and under -- 120 cases as of Sept. 30.

Ms. Prumo said elementary schools are likely to see more students with the human immunodeficiency virus because of the increasing number of children born to women who have the virus.

Cindy began experiencing AIDS symptoms about a year ago. The high school junior suffers from sickle cell anemia and became infected with HIV during a blood transfusion in 1984 -- before blood screening became common practice.

"If she wouldn't have had the transfusion, she wouldn't have lived," said her mother, Sue Gibson. "She was real sick. The doctors were wonderful. Later we found out she had the HIV virus."

Her family kept Cindy's disease a secret, telling only close friends and relatives.

Cindy decided to come forward earlier this month.

"I couldn't handle the stress in the family," said Cindy, noting the continual secrecy. "I did a lot of thinking about it and decided it was the thing to do."

Mrs. Gibson and her husband, Harry, supported their daughter's decision.

"We told her we would do whatever she wanted," said Mrs. Gibson, a supervisor for the National Geographic Society in Gaithersburg. "We told her it was up to her. She told us she wanted to be free."

Even so, the Gibsons were concerned that Cindy would face some backlash.

"At first I had my doubts," said her father, Harry, a construction supervisor. "When she started getting phone calls and letters that were all positive, I knew she was going to be OK. Everything's been positive."

"People have been wonderful," Mrs. Gibson said.

Cindy hopes her story will prompt others to become more concerned about the disease.

"I've heard there's a lot of kids going to get tested," she said. "I hope that I am helping the community and young people. You never know -- it could happen to anybody."

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