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How One Town Coped With AIDS : A Community's Response to an Infected Child's Family : How One Town Coped With AIDS--Community Responds Without Panic

December 25, 1987|ELIZABETH KASTOR | The Washington Post

DENTON, Md. — Lying in the August-hot sand of Rehoboth Beach, John Grant thought about the news from Arcadia, Fla.: the three boys exposed to the AIDS virus, the bomb threats, the anger, the burned-out house. He wondered if the fire would strike Denton next.

In a few weeks a pale little boy was scheduled to enter kindergarten in Denton, a tiny Eastern Shore town that comes under Grant's jurisdiction as Caroline County health officer. The boy would be carrying a small pouch attached to a tube through which the drug AZT flowed straight into his heart, keeping him alive, but even without the tube Grant knew that in Denton, where everyone knows everyone else and much of everyone else's business, the boy's disease would not remain a secret long.

Months of Rumors

For months the rumors had been circulating, and to make it more complicated, the boy's mother refused to wrap herself and her child in what Grant thought could be protective secrecy. Soon, the rumors would harden into direct questions and the town would know that one of the children learning to write his name at Denton Elementary had tested positive for exposure to AIDS.

Earlier in the summer, the mother had spoken to Grant, a man not given to easy optimism, especially about AIDS. Like many health officers, he has visited San Francisco and seen the devastation there, and subscribes to the more pessimistic forecasts of the havoc the disease will wreak.

"She said, 'Maybe it'll go really well . . .' " he remembers, his voice mimicking her tremulous hope. He shakes his head now as he did then. He didn't expect it to go really well.

Anxiety, but No Panic

But, somehow, it did. There have been no pickets, no bomb threats, no fires--plenty of anxiety and questions, but no panic, no flight from the school. Only one child was withdrawn. A small group of people, including a health officer, a principal, a newspaper editor and a young mother with a sick child, led Denton through a process that could have ripped the town apart. Ask people around Denton how things are going now, and they cross their fingers--so far, so good, and they can't quite believe it.

She had come to Denton several years before because a single mother with three children and could afford to buy a house there. She found hers on a block where almost every yard has a swing set and neighbors watch out for stray children. Hers is a cozy place with a playroom, a large kitchen, photographs of her children on shelves and tables, a few well-worn spy novels tucked away and a Big Wheel parked outside. Above the living room door hangs a simple sign with one word: HOME .

While many people--perhaps most people--in Denton have figured out who the single mother with three kids is, she wants to remain anonymous, and newspapers and television stations have respected that wish. Her name has never been revealed.

"I love Denton," she says. "There are some really good people. I got a letter in the mail the other day from somebody who'd read an article in the paper and told me how sad they felt about it and wished they could do something. I've had a note left on my door saying that they thought the way I did everything was really good and they were really happy for me that everything worked out. You get little things where people will try to show you what they feel."

In Maryland, AIDS is not a reportable disease; parents don't have to tell school officials that their children have been exposed to the virus and officials say some clearly do not. But the mother decided to talk, first to the woman who ran her son's day-care center and later to public school officials.

"If I had kept my mouth shut, nobody in this town would have known anything about it," she says. "But the easiest thing is not always the best thing. Even though the chances of him spreading it are very minimal--I figured if they knew, they could take the precautions."

The health department held an information meeting for neighbors and parents at the day-care center. "There were some who were really concerned," she says. "I got angry at one of them who said something like, 'We all support you, but. . . . ' And then there were all the 'What if this happens?' What if the moon should fall from the sky? I've heard a million 'what ifs.' I said, 'Look, you can either accept this and treat it with dignity, or you can set an example for all the future victims to hide and not come forward and you won't be taking any procedures against it, and is that what you want?' "

As she recalls those words, her voice rises, gaining momentum and passion but still quavering. All of this, the indignation and the insistence, is new to her.

"I'm a very private person," she says. "I don't go out all the time. I just stay home with my kids--I mean, that's just my role in life. It's like, this is my family, this is my fortress. My situation should be told, people should learn from it. But this is our home--it's different. Our situation is one thing, my life is another."

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