Barbara Webb is a retired school teacher living in Florida. Barbara never thought much about controversial issues like AIDS–until, that is, she saw a story in a local newspaper. It was about a patient suspected of contracting AIDS from her dentist.
What caught Barbara’s eye was the name of the dentist–a Dr. David Acer. Barbara knew that name: Dr. Acer was her own dentist.
Barbara and her husband Bob decided they’d better get tested for AIDS. Bob tested negative; but Barbara wasn’t as fortunate.
She tested positive.
The news was devastating. Barbara thought to herself: “This is impossible.” But it wasn’t impossible. You see, Dr. Acer was a practicing bisexual who continued treating patients–some 2,000 of them–even after he had tested positive for AIDS. He infected at least five of his patients with the killer disease before he himself died.
Another one of those five patients is Kimberly Bergalis. Kimberly had never engaged in any of the behaviors known to transmit AIDS: She’d never used intravenous drugs, slept with anyone, or had a blood transfusion.
But Kimberly had visited her dentist–Dr. Acer. And it was from him that she contracted the deadly disease.
That was in 1987, and Kimberly was only twenty-one years old, a pretty, fresh-faced girl with her whole life before her. Now she lies on her deathbed.
It’s plain that Kimberly Bergalis and Barbara Webb should never have gotten AIDS. Theirs is a tragedy that could have been avoided, if only they had known the truth about their dentist.
From her deathbed, Kimberly composed a letter to Florida health officials. “I blame Dr. Acer and every single one of you,” Kimberly wrote. “Anyone who knew he was infected and had full-blown AIDS but who stood by not doing a…thing about it. You are all just as guilty as he was.”
Do patients have the right to know if health care workers are carrying a deadly, communicable disease? It’s a question no one should even have to ask.
Every profession imposes standards on its practitioners. Politicians are required to disclose their finances. If there’s any income they can’t account for, they’re hauled before an ethics committee. Is that an invasion of their privacy? You bet it is.
Pilots are required to pass an eye examination. If their eyesight is bad, they lose their license. Is that an invasion of their privacy? No doubt about it.
But these measures are necessary if the profession is to regulate itself and promote responsibility.
The medical profession should require doctors to be tested for communicable diseases like AIDS, and carriers should be barred from performing invasive procedures–or, as the case may be, even from practicing at all.
Of course, fair is fair, and patients with AIDS should also be required to tell their doctors. After Barbara Webb tested positive for AIDS, she needed eye surgery. She had the human decency to inform her doctor she had the disease, in case he had any qualms about performing the operation.
“I just gave him the option,” Barbara explained. “Nobody gave me the option.”
In some circles, requiring people to disclose their HIV status creates an uproar. AIDS activists cry foul. Prejudice! Invasion of privacy!
Well, going public about AIDS may not be the politically correct thing to do. But when lives are at stake, it’s the right thing to do.