LANCASTER — A doctor who treats several people with AIDS charged Thursday that some Antelope Valley health care services and other businesses discriminate against people with the disease.
Dr. Susan Lawrence and others speaking at a news conference in her office made the charges against the area's largest hospital, a funeral home, an insurance company and a landlord.
"We are not here to point fingers," she said at the news conference sponsored by a group she founded, the Catalyst Foundation for AIDS Awareness and Care, stressing that the group's principal goal is to distribute information and attack irrational fears about the disease.
"We will go anywhere to speak about it," she said. "We will let people know AIDS is not transmitted casually."
But Lawrence and several others at the news conference did make specific charges.
The Mumaw Funeral Home in Lancaster was the subject of criticism because it refuses to handle the funerals of people who were infected with HIV, the virus thought to cause AIDS.
The director of the funeral home, Jim Mumaw, said the matter is one solely of personal safety. "I do not wish to become one of the small percentage of persons in my profession who will die from an accidental infection of the HIV virus," he said in a statement issued from his funeral home.
He said he is in a "unique" position "as a single parent of two small children."
"When it comes to dealing with deceased persons who have passed away from complications of the HIV virus," the statement also said, "we do our best to help the families contact another funeral home which will handle deaths resulting from HIV."
John Martinez, a member of the activist group Antelope Valley Gay and Lesbian Alliance, said the funeral home's position was indicative of how many local people regard the disease.
"These are people reflective of a small-town American community," he said, charging that Mumaw's position hurts the families and friends of those who die from the disease.
The Catalyst group has filed a complaint against Mumaw to the state Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, which is part of the Department of Consumer Affairs. But Mumaw, contacted after the news conference, said he has been told by board officials that he is within his rights to refuse to take people who died of AIDS-related diseases.
Board officials could not be reached for comment because of the state holiday Thursday.
Mumaw said he did not know of any cases of people who have contracted the virus from work in the funeral industry. "But I sure don't want to be the first," he said.
Several people speaking at the news conference charged that health workers at the Antelope Valley Hospital Medical Center give AIDS patients substandard care. A Quartz Hill man with AIDS, Gary Jones, said that when he came into the emergency room of the hospital in August with a high temperature, he had to wait several hours before getting a doctor-ordered intravenous treatment.
He said he believed the delay was due to some nurses' fears about the disease. He also charged that many food and cleaning workers at the hospital were afraid to enter his room.
A hospital official denied the charges. "I don't feel that he was treated differently than anyone else," said Kay Uhler, the director of nursing who said she remembered Jones being in the hospital.
"We follow universal precautions for everyone," she said. "AIDS patients are not treated any different."
She also said she feels that her nurses and other workers at the hospital do not discriminate against AIDS patients. "Our staff is so compassionate that I know they really care," Uhler said.
She said the hospital would welcome Lawrence or others associated with Catalyst participating in the center's continuing education program for staff members.
"Having someone come in to give a talk and raise the level of awareness is something we would do," she said.