ST. BONAVENTURE, NY – Helen Worth was sorting mail into three piles – bills, junk and personal – when she came across a letter from the Red Cross. She assumed the letter inside was a thank-you for participating in a blood drive at Portville Central School and almost tossed it into the junk pile. She decided to open it and was stunned by the message that urged her to see a doctor as soon as possible because her sample came back HIV positive.
That was in 1988, and her unexpected diagnosis came as the result of her high school English students’ begging her to donate blood so they could win a pizza party for being the team that got the most donors.
“One of her male students picked her up, threw her over his shoulder and began carrying her out of her classroom with her arms and legs flailing,” her daughter Mary Kay Worth, an adjunct in the St. Bonaventure University School of Education, told the group gathered for a recent Thursday Forum at SBU.
After learning about her HIV status, Helen Worth met with a doctor and quickly learned how the stigma of the disease would affect her. Her doctor assumed she had been unfaithful to her husband.
“My mom about came out of her chair at that doctor,” Worth told the audience. “She got married two weeks after her high school graduation from Portville and has had one lifetime intimate partner.”
Her mother’s diagnosis came seven years after she had received a blood transfusion for an emergency hysterectomy, and she was given a death sentence: She had only a year or two of life left.
Helen Worth and her family worried about how the diagnosis would affect their lives during a time when HIV and AIDS were taboo topics around the country. People did not understand the disease and tended to assume it is spread only through infidelity or homosexual contact.
“People have a wrong assumption that this is predominately a lifestyle choice thing concerning homosexuality,” her daughter said. “My mom got some advice to seek a mental health professional.”
The professional was Dr. Tom Delaney, a longtime St. Bonaventure faculty member and psychologist, who voiced concerns about the national culture and climate in the U.S. at the time. “He suggested she should figure out a way to get out with her dignity before people started doing stupid things,” Worth said.
Her mother was not willing to bring stress and turmoil to the Portville school district by trying to remain a teacher, so she told her superintendent and principal, and each cried after hearing the news, Worth stated. The Portville Board of Education decided it was best for her to leave.
Worth gave the audience the following statistics: As of 2012, 1.2 million people were living with HIV in the United States, with 50,000 new cases every year; one in four of those infected are women.
“HIV and AIDS do not kill,” she added. “It’s how the disease compromises one’s immune system and makes them more susceptible to other things.”
Helen Worth has been living and active in AIDS advocacy for almost 30 years. While she has had her share of bad days and takes nearly 280 pills every week, the family credits her strong faith for keeping her in good spirits.
Not long after her initial diagnosis, the family decided they had better make a big deal of Helen and Jim Worth’s 40th anniversary since they assumed she would not make it to their 50th. They have since celebrated their 60th and beyond.
Helen Worth turned 82 in June.
Mary Kay Worth concluded her Thursday Forum by showing a video of her mother who tells the viewers: “My desire is to live each day serving God, loving my family and caring for my community.”
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