AT 11:31 A.M. ON SEPT. 21, AMTRAK’S SILVER METEOR pulled into Florida’s Okeechobee station, just one of 30 stops on the train’s daily run between Miami and New York City. Yet for one passenger boarding at Okeechobee, this was not just a train trip; it was a pilgrimage. As Kimberly Bergalis settled painfully into her tiny compartment, she was beginning an odyssey that some believe she had literally been living for.
Since the day a year before when she revealed that she was the first person known to have been infected with the AIDS virus by a health-care worker, Kim, now 23, had had but one quest: to prevent what happened to her from happening again.
Last June her cause won valuable support on Capitol Hill. California Congressman William Dannemeyer told the Bergalises that he was introducing a bill, named for Kim, calling for mandatory testing of health-care workers who perform invasive procedures. But Kim could only smile weakly at the news. Ravaged by the disease she had contracted 3½ years earlier from her Stuart, Fla., dentist, Dr. David Acer, she was unable to speak, stand or eat. Her weight had dropped below 70 lbs. She begged to die.
But then Kim’s condition began to improve. Kim says her renewed strength to go on came from God. “He’s saying to me, ‘Go for it,’ ” she said. By August she was talking again and eating solid food. When it was announced that on Sept. 26 testimony would be heard relating to her namesake bill, Kim vowed to be there.
“I don’t think she’s going to leave [this world] until she sees mandatory testing of health-care providers and patients,” said her mother, Anna, 47, a public-health nurse, who cared for her on the long train ride north. “She’s willing to suffer until she can get to Washington.”
For the most part, though, the 19½-hour train trip—Kim’s first—seemed almost more than she could endure. She was lifted from her berth only at mealtimes—her fork moving in slow motion as she picked at turkey, beets and cheesecake. Then, hollow-eyed and gaunt, she huddled again under a blanket. She seemed to lack the energy even to enjoy the scenery she had so looked forward to.
As Kim dozed, Anna vented some of her boundless fury. “If Henry Waxman [the California Congressman who is head of the subcommittee on Health and the Environment] says no to this bill, it goes no further,” she said bitterly. “I want those congressmen to see what their policy of secrecy has done to my child.”
Kim was dressed when the train pulled into Washington’s Union Station at 7 A.M. the next morning. She spent the day resting at a hotel, where she was joined by her father, George, 47, finance director for the city of Fort Pierce, and sisters Allison, 20, and Sondra, 12, who had flown up for the occasion. Kim had hoped to walk into the hearing room the next morning but instead had to be pushed in a wheelchair. The packed room was hushed as she began to speak.
“I’d like to say that AIDS is a terrible disease which we must take seriously,” she said in a slurred monotone. “I did nothing wrong, yet I am 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.” Kim’s big moment—actually just 15 seconds—was over.
The emotionally charged appearance was followed by an accusatory speech by George Bergalis—”Kimberly is your shame”—and testimony by those who oppose mandatory testing as unnecessary, prejudicial and costly. Although the Dannemeyer bill seems unlikely to be approved, a less-stringent Senate proposal is now being considered by congressional leaders, Said Kim: “They heard my words, but they weren’t affected by them.”
Back in Florida, where she was flown by air ambulance the next morning, Kim returned to the water bed in her family’s bungalow in Fort Pierce. There are those close to her who fear that, her testimony over, her final battle waged, she will give up now and die. But Barbara Webb, one of four others infected by Dr. Acer, wishes the end would come soon. “I love Kim enough to hope she won’t suffer that much longer,” she says. “I just hope she can know her life has made such a difference.”
The Bergalises have no doubts. “She’s done all she can do,” says George. “Now it’s up to the American people.” George and Anna see their greatest ally in the AIDS virus itself. “It’s going to keep marching on,” George adds, “and the next time this happens, which it will, no one will be able to look the other way anymore.”
MEG GRANT on the Silver Meteor and in Washington