Family stricken by AIDS struggles for survival

June 20, 1993|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

There's an urgency to Catherine Dunn's mothering.

She's trying to cram all she can into whatever time remains of a life threatened by the AIDS virus.

The walls of her Sykesville home are decorated with pictures of family milestones. Several photos of smiling children growing from babies to pre-teens surround a bride and groom toasting their life together.

Ms. Dunn, 32, points lovingly to the photos, recalling each memorable day. Now, she also keeps a detailed journal and makes videos for her children.

"There is probably a year's worth of reading and watching for the children," she said. "I just talk to them through the camera and tell them things I've done or how I feel. Some times, I just say, 'I love you.' "

Ms. Dunn hopes the family will still have a home by the end of June. The financial crisis that follows loss of income and health insurance as a result of having AIDS has left them with no money to pay the rent and a landlord threatening eviction.

Ms. Dunn recalls May 14, 1990 -- the day she tested positive for HIV -- as the day that irrevocably changed her life. She was tested a few days after her husband of three years learned he carried the virus that causes AIDS.

"HIV taught us life is precious and to take every day in stride," she said.

In the three years since the diagnosis, her 28-year-old husband has developed full-blown AIDS. She hasn't had "major problems" other than fatigue, asthma and allergies that she never had before she was infected.

"If you are not infected, you can't possibly know what this diagnosis means," she said. "I can't imagine any more what it feels like not to have HIV."

For this article and to protect her children's identity, she uses her middle and maiden name.

"So much stigma is here," she said of Carroll County. "Look at all the uproar last year over showing high school kids an AIDS video."

She said she cried "all the time" during the year after her diagnosis.

"I thought my life was over," she said. "I felt a sense of urgency, like I had to do everything."

The urgency evolved into acceptance, she said, and a determination to survive until her children are grown.

"I have to beat this for the sake of my children," she said. "I'm going to overcome and live with this."

After their marriage in 1987, her second husband adopted the children from Ms. Dunn's first marriage. The family settled into a typical suburban life, she said. Both she and her husband "made good money" in their jobs.

She said she first suspected that her husband had the virus in 1990 when he experienced several health problems for which doctors could find no explanation.

"Something made me insist on the AIDS test," she said.

When it came back positive, the family physician recommended that she and the children be tested, too. The children do not have the virus.

Ms. Dunn and her husband were able to keep their jobs until November, when fatigue and health problems forced them to quit. Since then, escalating medical bills have depleted their savings. They face daily physical and financial crises and are facing homelessness.

"We never had to ask anybody for anything," she said. "Now, we have become wards of the system and we must ask for almost everything. It's hard and degrading."

Through the Carroll County Health Department, the family secured a Ryan White Fund grant to pay their $800 monthly rent through May. With no other help in sight, Ms. Dunn worries how long they will be able to stay in the neighborhood where her children are settled among friends and in a school they both like.

"We don't want to move the children. Their lives have been

disrupted enough already," she said. "But we could be evicted any day."

Linda Stromberg, the county Health Department's AIDS case manager, said, "We are scrounging to find whatever is out there. We are trying to locate other sources so housing doesn't remain an issue for this family."

The department receives federal emergency funds for short-term housing problems as "a stop-gap measure until we find a long-term solution," said Ms. Stromberg.

One solution may be money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for families in a housing crisis. Ms. Dunn has applied for a federal housing grant, but the family will be on a waiting list until December at the earliest, she said.

"We survive on Social Security, food stamps and whatever part-time jobs, we can pick up," she said.

She also speaks -- outside Carroll County -- for the National Association of People with AIDS. Often, the children accompany her.

"As long as I am out of the county, I know my children won't have repercussions from my going public," she said.

Ms. Dunn said she dedicates half her life to educating people about AIDS -- "the first step in wakening everyone to the crisis." The rest of her time she devotes to her family. The two goals often combine.

"Our children have learned enough to educate others," she said.

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