The Gathering Storm
My life of seeing death and horrors of life as a daily newspaper reporter in the early 1990s would progress to a long story that would blow off course the career I’d plotted throughout my adolescence and young adult life.
Three names: Kimberly Bergalis, David Acer and Barbara Webb.
It was very early in the AIDS crisis. Allow me to stress, a time that we did not know as much as we do now, when people still wondered whether one could hug someone who had AIDS without catching it and very few treatment options were available.
I worked at the hometown newspaper when a young woman — almost exactly my age at the time — emerged in the national news as “the virgin with AIDS,” accusing her dentist of infecting her.
At first, the national media did not believe Kimberly Bergalis when she told her story. The little beach resort communities became abuzz with all of the press calling. Unlike today’s 24-hour news cycle with immediate results and talking head synopsis, news seemed to sweep from thought-provoking to tabloid.
I was the staff reporter known as someone who could “get people to talk.” The city editor encouraged me to poke holes in her story, to find the elements that might not be honest.
When I sat down with Kimberly — the first of many times — I would discover someone who was truly vibrant, honest and not at all dishonest. There would be no holes to poke into her story. She was nothing if not truthful — to a fault.
Shortly, the rest of America would soon find this woman who vibrated a beauty and grace would captivate everyone else.
And I had a front-row seat.
The dentist, Dr. David J. Acer, passed away just prior to Kimberly’s arrival in the public eye. It became easy to cast this closeted gay man as a demon, bent on destruction as he wasted away from one of the worst scourges upon the human race. But since I was the hometown newspaper reporter, I would meet members of the underground community who knew David. As I would talk to many of these people, I would discover that, no matter the desire to cast him as the evil-doer, he likely was not.
But that story would never appear, as his friends would be closeted as well, far from the glitz of Miami and too time-displaced for acceptance as gays as today.
The culprits, in my opinion, would be the dental equipment. When I wrote about it at the time, the dental industry objected loudly. Yet at the time of the likely infection of Kimberly and several others of David’s patients, common practice of infection control in the dentist office was wiping down instruments with the equivalent of mouthwash.
Again, let me stress, even as Kimberly came forward, it was years after her likely infection in David’s dental office — sometime in the mid to late 1980s — when understanding of HIV transmission, or even AIDS/HIV itself, was a mystery.
No such dastardly deed existed, despite some former acquaintances of the dentist who would later claim such in order to get some cash from the tabloids that surrounded the media whirlwind around Kimberly.
Yet the insurance company that would represent the former professional practice of David Acer, DDS, would come out swinging, in every effort to discredit and even sully the people who were infected.
Before the other infected patients emerged, a deposition from Kimberly was released that detailed her sexual history. In my opinion, it lacked relevance for two reasons:
- Kimberly indeed retained her virginity.
- Anyone else listed within had tested negative for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
My city editor at the time pressed me to write about it. I stoutly argued I should not and appealed to the managing editor, who backed up the city editor. In the end, if I were not to write about it, I would no longer be “on the Bergalis beat” and be able to cover this story.
What disturbed me so much about the details of Kimberly’s sexual history was I found an encounter to likely be date rape and, therefore, inappropriate content.
I called Kimberly, warning her I was forced into this position. While unhappy, she understood.
I wrote as delicately as I could, only to have an editor rev up the lurid details.
(By the way, a few years later, the same managing editor would tell me she thought we never should have run the story.)
Shortly after the arrival of this piece, another infected patient came forward. Interestingly enough, she called the newsroom herself prior to her news conference announcing her actual name — Barbara Webb, a 67-year-old grandmother and retired school teacher. She told an editor that any reporter was welcome to attend, “except that Michael Cheek.”
She’d read my piece on Kimberly’s sex life and was livid. I couldn’t blame her.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and there was a hearing at court on Kimberly’s case against the insurance company. I went. As it turned out, so did Barbara. When she saw Kimberly and I chat for a moment, Barbara came up and invited me over for coffee.
She would later tell me that day she couldn’t see any horns growing out of my head.
I find it more difficult to write about Barbara than anyone else. For a time, I would cover Barbara as a journalist. But I began to change as this medical tragedy destroyed these lives.
I called this an “immaculate infection.” No one did anything evil. No one deserved this. No one wanted it to happen. The results were horrific in so many ways. But I also think a lot of good came of it, with infection control improvements in the dental office.
Nonetheless, this story infected me. It infected my soul. More than the murders, car accidents, fires, drownings and other seemingly daily occurrences, my heart just could not sit back detached and witness tragedy then write about it for what seemed like a voyeuristic, unquenchable audience.
This was a national story and, several times, I would write pieces to see wire services pick them up. Great for my career. But I was feeling smaller than ever, as I watched Kimberly and others suffer.
AIDS proved horrific for too many, and when it took Kimberly in 1991, her death was just one of 156,143 in the United States. Not enough done, not quickly enough.
I chose to go to graduate school in Washington, D.C. I hoped that a career in public policy journalism might be my saving grace, rescue my lifelong ambition of being a journalist. I thought maybe I might find a home for my career.
Be sure to look for Part 3: Why I Am a Storyteller
As I would depart Florida for graduate school, Barbara and I would bond over our first meal together (with her devoted husband Robert). We would immediately form a remarkably strong friendship that would define much of my mid-twenties. To this day, I’ve found in few people provide for me a kinship like Barbara.
Through the final years of her life, Barbara would be a huge influence. Her words of wisdom, her unwavering love, kindness and friendship proved to be a steadfast rock for me through graduate school and beyond.
She called me in October 1994. I’d been out of grad school two years. She sent me a plane ticket to come visit her in Florida over the upcoming weekend.
We sat on a bench in Leighton Park overlooking the St. Lucie River. A strong ocean breeze carried salt as the sun’s autumn angle — just warm enough — touched us. We sat huddled together, keeping warm in each other’s company, laughing, crying and saying our good-byes.
My dear friend would pass in December.
Just one of 270,870 U.S. deaths attributed to AIDS as of 1994.
All of these entries are from memory, which are absolutely crystallized but some details faded through the last twenty-plus years. Further, I’ve added opinion, as this is not a piece of journalism, but my own story.