May 22, 2004
Story: Spencer Aronfeld appeared on CNN Saturday night at 10 PM to discuss a case of a woman who was misdiagnosed with HIV (Aids).
Let’s be clear about this: Karla Williams, 30, Racine, is not HIV positive and she does not have AIDS.
For six years, she thought she had HIV, which is the virus that causes AIDS. Her diagnosis was a mistake.
Take a step back in time, to a few years ago when Williams’ pre- teen son, Brent Dzbinski, was pod racing against his best friend on a Nintendo N64. Brent was at his friend’s house and his friend’s dad approached.
“He said they had things to do and I should go home,” remembers Brent, now 12. The father had heard Brent’s mom had AIDS. He called and demanded that Brent stay away from his son. That day was the last time Brent saw his friend.
This is the sort of sad, separating moment that HIV makes for people. Apart from the raw fear, apart from the weight of responsibility that comes from having HIV and three young children, much of the sadness for Karla Williams was about separation. She said you stop kissing your children, or you at least avoid anywhere near the mouth. You learn to do your laundry separately, to keep separate toiletries, to keep all your stuff separate from their stuff.
Actually, Karla Williams learned this the hard way. One day, she found her toothbrush in her 2-year-old daughter’s mouth. “I sat on the floor and bawled,” she said. “When she had my toothbrush in her mouth I just completely lost it.”
HIV, by the way, is transmitted by sexual intercourse, direct blood contact, or from a mother to her unborn child. Research indicates HIV is not spread by touching; contact with sweat, tears or sneezes; sharing swimming pools or toilets, or sharing towels.
Williams reminded herself that saliva is not considered an effective transmitter of HIV, but a mother wants to protect her children from even a remote chance of harm. So the guilt, over a toothbrush, lingered for years.
She says it was an older doctor in Burlington, a man set to retire, who called to tell her she was HIV positive in December of 1997. She says he re-ran the test using the same blood and, again, he read the results as a positive test.
In September, she was headed for elective surgery. Tired of feeling powerless against HIV – even though it had not seemed to progress or develop into symptoms – she decided to do something to feel some sense of control. She was overweight. She decided to have the size of her stomach reduced.
The doctor, cautious about operating on someone with HIV, tested her blood thoroughly before the surgery.
“I got this in the mail,” she said. “This is probably the most important piece of paper I’ll ever have.”
It’s an HIV negative result. It’s heavily creased at the folds because she takes it with her everywhere. She opens it up and looks at it. She shows people. She dreams of some day framing it, when she’s finally done carrying it around.
The first month after she was told she was HIV negative, she talked to doctors about it and got herself tested again, and then again. She’s been testing every three months. One reads: “No HIV!”
Williams has seen lawyers. They say the statute of limitations has run out. Williams’ gynecologist urged her to have her tubes tied, even though she dreamed of a big family, so she did it. Williams was a certified nursing assistant, and she loved working with patients. But a patient bit her just prior to her diagnosis and co-workers pressured her to leave. She quit.
Then, she got a job as a medical receptionist, while keeping the supposed HIV a secret, but was soon transferred into a blood-draw training program. “When I considered it dangerous, I quit.”
Six years of living with a false HIV diagnosis took a lot from her. But she looks for the positives too. She says she feels like she can do anything now.
“I can,” she says. “I’m stronger now.”