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A Moment of AIDS Hysteria Remembered

Florida dentist was accused of deliberately giving eight of his patients AIDS. Three decades later, the author of a new book asks if the lurid accusations were really true.

Eleanor J. Bader Aug 25

When Florida dentist David Johnson Acer died in 1990, AIDS was considered a terminal illness that most people believed affected only gay men and needle-sharing IV drug users. Yes, they knew that a small number of unfortunate souls had contracted the virus through tainted blood transfusions, but most folks — including government officials at the highest levels — ignored the burgeoning health crisis. 

That is, until a 19-year-old college student named Kimberly Ann Bergalis, a self-described sexual virgin, accused HIV-positive Acer of giving her AIDS through contaminated medical equipment. In short order, seven others came forward to accuse Acer of giving them the virus. Hysteria, encouraged by hyperbolic headlines and sensationalized TV coverage followed and by the time Acer passed at age 41, his reputation was in tatters.

“I think he took a needle and syringe, drew his own blood into it, and directly injected it into his patients’ mouths with the anesthesia,” Doug Feldman, Associate Professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine told the Orlando Sentinel.

His proof? Nothing. Not a scintilla of evidence was offered but still, Feldman’s words were quoted in the press and, like a bad game of Telephone, rumor led to condemnation.

Not surprisingly, Acer died in disgrace. But his story did not end there. Los Angeles-based poet Steven Reigns, a medical worker from 2000 to 2013, was haunted by Acer’s story and in 2008 started researching him and his accusers. “Our knowledge of HIV transmission has progressed over the course of the epidemic, and yet the story of the dentist victimizing his patients in 1990 seemed immutable,” Reigns writes in the Preface to A Quilt for David, a series of short poems about the mild-mannered, closeted, former-Air Force dentist who did not come out to his family until he was near death.

Reigns’ research took him all over the US as he attempted to track down and interview people who’d known Acer, hitting many dead ends. Still, questions nagged.  Reigns posits in the Preface, “Who gets believed? Whose story do we prioritize over others? What risks do we forgive and what risks do we punish?”

A Quilt for David is a mournful look at stigma and a bold, almost in-your-face account of how quickly accusations can spiral, especially when a young, charismatic, white woman levels the charges. 

Most importantly, however, Reigns found no causal links between the infections of Acer’s eight accusers and the dentist. Instead, he found opportunism — hidden IV drug use and sexual improprieties — that lead him to conclude that the charges were bogus, especially since Acer followed strict protocols, always wearing gloves and sterilizing equipment with an autoclave. “The more I discovered about the story, the more it appeared that Kimberly and the others who blamed David for their infections could have been like so many of my patients who didn’t disclose their own full stories of HIV infection,” Reigns writes. “Each one of them had their own circumstances and motivations to blame outside risk factors, to blame David Acer.” Eventually, though, Acer’s malpractice insurance kicked in, awarding money to Bergalis and two of the others.  

It’s an important story full of twists and turns that reveal deep truths about the ingrained biases and assumptions that impact decision-making — especially relevant today because of COVID — whether it’s to mask, get vaccinated, have unprotected sex or put our trust in a particular doctor or other professional.

Reigns’ explores all of these themes in a series of emotionally rich poems that together form an elegiac tribute to life, death and honor. Some of the poems pay direct homage to Acer and the thousands of others who died of AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s; others are angry denunciations of both homophobia and the mob mentality that ran with unfounded gossip and condemned a man who was likely innocent. Still others present Acer’s fear of revealing his sexual identity and provide a sad testament to the external and internal forces that kept him from living authentically.  

All told, A Quilt for David is a mournful look at stigma and a bold, almost in-your-face account of how quickly accusations can spiral, especially when a young, charismatic, white woman levels the charges. 

Reigns notes that Kimberly Bergalis is remembered in four separate AIDS quilt panels. Not so for Acer. “I’d put your name in large letters/ wanting no one to forget you died of it/ too. I’d sew you into that large quilt because/ no one else has,” one poem concludes. 

But even if Reigns never put needle and thread to fabric, his words have created a permanent memorial to David Johnson Acer. One can only hope that they are enough to make a blessing of his bruised memory. 

A Quilt for David
by Steven Reigns
City Lights Books, 101 pages
Release Date: September 14, 2021.

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