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Dispute with woman outside West Palm home preceded fatal shooting

Rob Hiaasen on Kimberly Bergalis: ‘If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone’

This story originally ran Dec. 9, 1991


We finally know the when. We knew what she thought about her disease and how much she wanted mandatory AIDS testing. We knew she was going to die and where she got sick, but family and friends didn't know the when. 

Kimberly Bergalis died Sunday in her sleep at home in Fort Pierce. The 23- year-old woman was the first person believed to have contracted the AIDS virus from a health professional-- her dentist Dr. David Acer. 

"If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone," Kimberly had said. 

"If I can save one person, I won't die in vain." 

In her last few days, an emaciated Kimberly was having problems drinking, eating and breathing. She suffered from thrush-- a fungus infection of her  mouth, nose and trachea that was making breathing difficult. As they had every night for months, her parents carried her to bed Saturday. 

"She was struggling so hard to get air. We told her she had suffered 

enough. You don't deserve this," said her mother, Anna. 

"Just have a real deep sleep tonight," she told her daughter. Anna 

Bergalis slept on the floor in Kimberly's room and was awakened about 3 a.m. by the family's dog. 

"I heard Kim give a little sigh, then I didn't hear her breathing." She 

woke up her husband, and they told Kimberly's younger sisters, Sondra and Allison. 

"We're glad it's over," said her father, George. ' ' She was always 

prepared to die. Last night, she decided we were ready for her to die. I told her we would be OK." 

A viewing will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. today at St. Anastasia Catholic Church in Fort Pierce. Kimberly will be buried Thursday in Pennsylvania in her hometown of Tamaqua. 

"She was a very brave girl, a very courageous girl, an inspiration to us all," Father Mark Christopher said at Sunday's Mass at St. Anastasia. He usually visited her on Sundays, but he came a day early and brought her a small Christmas tree. 

"She was very low. We all knew something was going to happen." 

`BOOKS BEFORE BOYS' 

Kimberly Ann Mary Bergalis was the oldest of three daughters of George and Anna Bergalis. She graduated from St. Anastasia Elementary School and John Carroll High School before attending the University of Florida. Her parents were strict with Kimberly. She couldn't wear earrings or lipstick in high school and couldn't go out on Sundays. 

"Books before boys," her mother told her. 

In 1978, the family moved to Fort Pierce from Tamaqua. George Bergalis became the city's finance director. Anna Bergalis has worked for years as a nurse for the Indian River County Public Health Unit in Vero Beach. They scrimped and borrowed enough money to send their first child to college. 

In December 1987, Kimberly first saw Acer. The dentist, wearing gloves and a mask, pulled two molars. Acer asked about her major at school and whether she wanted to keep the two molars, she remembered. A year later, Acer took out two of Kimberly's wisdom teeth. 

"He was a good dentist. Or, rather, I thought he was a good dentist," she said. Her parents were also fond of this mild-mannered, polite dentist. 

They thought he had beautiful blue eyes. 

At the University of Florida, Kimberly took tough math courses, danced at fraternity parties, joined a health club and dated a little. After graduation, Kimberly was going to become an actuary-- someone who calculates life expectancies for insurance. 

She wanted to move to Atlanta or Boston, meet and marry a man, and later have children. 

"Nothing was going to stop those plans," she later said. 

In March of 1989, Kimberly started getting very tired. She fainted on her first day as a waitress at a Gainesville restaurant called Kapio's. There were white patches on the roof of her mouth. Kimberly lost 12 pounds in six weeks. A friend persuaded her to see a doctor. Doctors told her she had leukemia, then hepatitis. In December, she left school and came home to Fort Pierce. She was too weak to walk. Her mother suspected this was worse than hepatitis. 

Kimberly was tested for the AIDS virus. The first test was inconclusive. The family prayed together that night. The next day, Kimberly Bergalis was HIV-positive. 

"I had chills, just in my feet, and then they slowly moved up and I started trembling and crying, and I said, `Are you sure?' " 

Kimberly was not in any high-risk category for AIDS: She hadn't had intercourse, hadn't used intravenous drugs and hadn't had a blood transfusion, she said. How did this happen? 

Her mother was the first one to suspect AIDS. Anna and George Bergalis had heard rumors that their dentist had AIDS. Acer had closed his practice in summer 1989 after telling patients he had cancer. George Bergalis even joked about Acer's condition to his office staff. 

"The guy probably got AIDS," he said. "Little did I know it would come 

back to haunt me." 

Kimberly told the federal Centers for Disease Control that Acer somehow infected her. The government told her it couldn't be Acer; there was no record of a health-care professional giving AIDS to a patient. Hepatitis, yes. AIDS, no. 

Federal and state health officials investigated Kimberly's personal life. There had been foreplay but no intercourse, Kimberly said. Two of her former boyfriends tested negative for HIV. Kimberly said she felt health officials didn't believe she was a virgin. 

At a loss for a risk factor, the CDC turned to the "Florida dentist." Acer's and his patient's identities would remain secret because of confidentiality laws covering AIDS patients. 

The story broke in July 1990: 

"The epidemiologic and laboratory findings in this investigation indicate possible transmission of HIV from the dentist to the patient," the CDC reported. 

Kimberly heard the news from anchorwoman Jane Pauley, who was reading a story about a young woman in Florida who might have been infected with AIDS from her dentist. 

"Hey, that's me!" she told her family. 

On Sept. 3, 1990, Acer died of AIDS-related cancer at the Hospice of Palm Beach County. Three days earlier, he released a letter to his patients: "I do not understand how such a thing could have happened, and I do not believe it did happen." 

Until then, the world had never heard of Kimberly Bergalis. Four days after Acer's death, the Fort Pierce woman went public. 

"I realize I can't just sit here and live my quiet life if I can protect other people from what happened to me," she said. 

Her parents hired West Palm Beach attorney Robert Montgomery. The lawsuits against Acer would be public record, but Kimberly still was known only as Patient A. 

On Sept. 7, 1990, Patient A came out of the closet. Kimberly Bergalis 

-- the girl next door-- told a shocked and skeptical America that she got the AIDS virus from her dentist. Her dentist. She told us she was a virgin, and some didn't believe her and maybe still don't. You couldn't get the AIDS virus from your dentist-- could you? 

"I was afraid of going public with the news at first because I didn't want people to egg my car or paint graffiti on my house," she said. "But once I got my strength back, I realized this was my mission in life." 

The family would win a $999,999 settlement against CNA Insurance Co., 

which provided Acer's malpractice insurance. The Bergalises also won an 

undisclosed settlement against CIGNA Dental Health of Florida, the health-care provider that referred Kimberly to Acer. 

"You cannot place a dollar value on what happened," Kimberly said. In late April, Kimberly's health deteriorated. She lost a lot of weight. She couldn't walk, and her speech became slurred. Her family and nurses carried her to the bed, bathroom or family room couch where Kimberly watched MTV, sipped Gatorade or sucked Popsicles. 

To break the monotony, her family gave her a car ride or occasionally took her in the pool. They didn't want to see Kim staring at the ceiling all day. 

She used a small computer speller to communicate, pecking out words such as "Thanks" and "Go Gators." 

With the help of her father, Kimberly wrote a letter to a state health official in early April. The unmailed letter would be published months later: "I blame Dr. Acer and every single one of you bastards . . . If laws are not formed to provide protection, then my suffering and death was in vain," Kimberly wrote. 

"I'm dying guys. Goodbye." 

`NO ONE WILL FORGET' 

"No one will forget this case," said Dr. Harold Jaffe, deputy director of the national Centers for Disease Control AIDS division. "We are going to  practice medicine differently because of this case." 

In January, the American Medical Association and American Dental Association recommended that AIDS-infected doctors and dentists warn their patients that they have the disease or stop doing surgery. 

Six months later, the CDC announced health-care workers should not perform invasive procedures-- such as pulling teeth. Patients should be informed of whether their doctors have HIV-- the virus believed to cause AIDS. 

But the government stopped short of ordering mandatory AIDS testing.  Health officials, including former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, say  mandatory testing is unnecessary because there is virtually no risk of 

transmission from a health-care worker to a patient. 

The CDC determined through genetic testing there was a 99.4 percent chance Kimberly contracted AIDS from Acer. The government said four other Acer patients had virtually the same strain of HIV he had. 

One of those patients is 65-year-old Barbara Webb of Palm City, a former 

School Teacher of the Year from Martin County, who became close friends with Kimberly after her public disclosure. Webb does not have AIDS. Webb visited her Saturday. 

"Kim was the personification of beauty, strength and integrity," she said. 

`I DID NOTHING WRONG' 

While the method of transmission remains unknown, CDC scientists said 

Acer's patients may have gotten the AIDS virus because his instruments were contaminated. In August, medical investigators renewed their investigation. 

"For the families, the tragedy is that someone was infected. I suspect they don't really care how it happened, but for the rest of us it does matter," the CDC's Jaffe said. Health officials have not ruled out the possibility that Acer deliberately infected patients. 

Kimberly's health improved last summer. She gained almost 10 pounds. She got a craving for cheeseburgers and could walk with help from her Hospice nurses, parents or two younger sisters, Sondra and Allison. Although faint and breathless, her speech improved and for the first time in months, friends and family could hear her speak again. 

"It's just the virus playing tricks," George Bergalis said. 

Gov. Lawton Chiles and his wife, Rhea, met Kimberly in July at her home. "Rhea and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet this very uncommon young lady, whose spirit and determination to help others to avoid her own fate is one of the most courageous stands any individual can take," Chiles said. 

In September, Kimberly accepted an invitation to travel to Washington. It would be her last public appearance. The 70-pound Kimberly took a 20-hour train ride to Washington to urge lawmakers to pass an AIDS testing bill named after her. She spoke for 20 seconds. Her bill never made it out of committee. "I'd like to say AIDS is a terrible disease that you must take seriously. I did nothing wrong, yet I'm being made to suffer like this . . ." she told lawmakers. "My life has been taken away." 

Then she came home. 

Her last two months were spent mainly in bed. The interviews stopped. And Kimberly began to develop thrush in her mouth and throat. She lost her appetite but told her parents she knew what would happen if she stopped eating. Her parents told her not to fight it. 

On Saturday night, they carried her to the bathroom before bedtime. "It was like picking up a bowl of jelly," George Bergalis said. He asked her how she was doing. He always asked her that. She always said she was doing OK. 

"You look like hell," he told her. 

Kim smiled at her father. 

* Staff writer Fataima Ahmad contributed to this report. 

KIMBERLY BERGALIS, 23 

* 1980: 

FEBRUARY -- Dr. David Johnson Acer, 31, moves to Martin County. His office is in the Florida National Bank Building in Jensen Beach. He's designated as the dentist for state employees and Martin County teachers covered by CIGNA insurance. 

* 1987: DEC. 17-- Kimberly Ann Mary Bergalis, a 19-year-old Fort Pierce resident, is on Christmas break from the University of Florida. She sees Acer for the first time and has two bottom molars removed. Bergalis says Acer wore gloves and mask. The dentist asked whether she wanted to save the molars. 

* 1989: MARCH-- Bergalis goes to the university infirmary for a sore throat. 

' Something was wrong. I couldn't put my finger on it,' she testified in October 1990. Doctors later think she has leukemia, then hepatitis. 

DECEMBER-- Bergalis is too sick to stay in college and comes home. She 

can't walk. `My mom said this isn't hepatitis.' She goes back to the doctor, who tells her she has pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. Her doctor then tells her she has AIDS. `I had chills, just in my feet and then it just slowly moved up and I started trembling and crying, and I said, you know, are you sure?' Bergalis is 21. 

* 1990: JULY 27-- CDC publishes report of the first possible HIV transmission from a dentist to a patient. Bergalis is watching TV when anchorwoman Jane Pauley reads the story and mentions a young Florida woman being infected with the virus. 

"Hey! That's me!" Bergalis says. 

AUG. 31-- With his mother, Acer arrives by stretcher at the Hospice of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach. `Wants to die sedated so that he does not know what's going on,' a nurse writes. He is placed in respiratory isolation. He has a `beaten look.' 

SEPT. 3-- Acer, 40, is dead of Kaposi's sarcoma, AIDS-related cancer. He 

will be cremated.`I'm not sure history is going to remember him,' says Kenneth Acer, one of his younger brothers. 

SEPT. 5 -- Acer's open letter to his patients telling them he has AIDS is published in local newspapers. 

SEPT. 7-- Kimberly Bergalis, Patient A, reveals her identity at a news 

conference. She says Acer infected her with the AIDS virus. `It's taken my 

life away.' 

* 1991 JAN. 17 -- The American Medical Association and the American Dental Association issue recommendations that AIDS-infected doctors and dentists should warn their patients or stop doing surgery. 

JAN. 22 -- Bergalis reaches a $1 million settlement in her lawsuit against CNA Insurance Co. 

MARCH 28 -- She settles with CIGNA Dental Health of Florida insurance company for an undisclosed amount. 

APRIL 6-- In an unmailed letter to an HRS investigator, Bergalis writes: ' If laws are not formed to provide protection, then my suffering and death was in vain. I'm dying guys. Goodbye.' 

MAY 14: `I want to die,' Bergalis says in a videotaped interview. 

JUNE: CDC reports there are five infected Acer patients. Of Acer's 1,900 

known patients, state health officials report 1,100 people have been tested 

for HIV. 

JULY 8: At her home, Bergalis is visited by Gov. Lawton Chiles and his 

wife, Rhea. `She has a wonderful presence about her . . . almost like you were in the presence of a saint,' he says. Chiles says he has not taken a position on mandatory testing of doctors, dentists and nurses or their patients. 

JULY: The CDC recommends that HIV-infected health-care providers not 

perform "invasive" procedures-- such as pulling teeth -- unless they get 

permission from a panel of experts and inform their patients. AIDS testing remains voluntary. 

AUGUST: The CDC recommends that hospital patients be routinely tested for the AIDS virus, a proposal that could cost $175 million in Florida alone. 

SEPTEMBER: Bergalis travels to Washington to urge lawmakers to pass a 

mandatory AIDS testing bill named after her. She tells lawmakers: `I'd like to say that AIDS is a terrible disease that you must take seriously. I did nothing wrong, yet I'm being made to suffer like this. My life has been taken away. Please enact legislation so that no other patient or health-care provider will have to go through the hell that I have. Thank you.' The bill does not make it out of committee. 

DEC. 8: Kimberly Bergalis dies in Fort Pierce at the age of 23. 

`We're glad it's over. It's been a 2-year journey through hell and 

fortunately, she doesn't have to suffer anymore.' 

GEORGE BERGALIS - Kimberly's father `She was a very brave girl, a very courageous girl, an inspiration to us 

all. We have a lot of praying to do this week.' 

FATHER MARK 

CHRISTOPHER 

St. Anastasia Catholic Church, Fort Pierce 

`Rhea and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet this very 

uncommon young lady, whose spirit and determination to help others to avoid 

her own fate is one of the most courageous stands any individual can take.' 

GOV. LAWTON CHILES 

`Other than being responsible for saving my life, Kim was my friend and 

teacher-- an example of total courage and honesty. She's been through hell, but her passage to heaven was swift.' 

BARBARA WEBB 

`I want to keep walking in her footsteps and do what I can for mandatory 

AIDS testing. Her voice will not be stopped. It will be louder.' 

LISA SHOEMAKER of Michigan Former Acer patient infected with AIDS virus 

`Kimberly saved my life and my daughter's life. We would not have gone and been tested for HIV, and my husband could have passed it to me. Kim has a special place in our heart.' 

DEANNE DRISKILL

Wife of 31-year-old Richard Driskill of Indiantown, former Acer patient 

infected with the AIDS virus 

`You learn a lot about character from a person like that. She educated the public that AIDS is everybody's disease.' 

ROBERT MONTGOMERY-Bergalis' attorney 

`We told Kim, `Do you want to greet the dawn and have to go through 

another day? You don't deserve this. You just have a real deep sleep tonight. We love you.' ` 

ANNA BERGALIS-Kimberly's mother


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