I’m Going to Die!

I’m Going to Die!

From Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul Second Dose

I’m Going to Die!

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.

Romans 8:28

I’m going to die!

The words pierced my soul. Everything around me was spinning. I put down the telephone and replayed the conversation in my mind.

“Kathy, your HIV test . . . it’s come back positive!” my doctor had blurted out.

In shock, I stared out the window. My worst nightmare had come true.

Back in June 1986, I was a nurse working in the ER when an accident-related trauma patient was wheeled in. We cracked open his chest to perform internal CPR. My bare hands were wrist-deep inside him. Despite our best efforts, he died minutes later.

Later that night, we found out he had AIDS. My own heart skipped a beat as I looked down at my hands and remembered a minor cut on my right index finger. As you know, back in the mid-1980s, we didn’t wear gloves to protect us.

The doctors decided to run additional tests to confirm the positive results. My nightmare continued. Weeks later, eight confirmatory tests also came back positive. The doctors notified the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), who were also concerned.

You see, I was the first healthcare worker in America to ever test HIV-positive from an on-the-job exposure.

Back then, AIDS was a guaranteed death sentence. Most AIDS victims did not survive more than a year. Speculation was rampant, but no one really knew all the ways it could be spread.

No, this can’t happen to me, I thought angrily. I can’t handle it! What am I going to do? I am a nurse just trying to help someone! It was more than I could bear.

Reluctantly, that night I sat down and tearfully told my family.

Then, after mentally laboring for days, I forced myself to tell my boss. She was sympathetic, but said, “Kathy, if this gets out, this hospital will shut down. I’m sorry, but you can’t work here anymore.”

That weekend, I shared the shocking news with my church. To my amazement, some members turned away from me. I overheard one say, “You know AIDS is God’s punishment.” Another member whispered, “Don’t touch her, you’ll take it home to your kids!”

I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping.

One night in a graduate school class, as I wrestled with my own demons, my professor showed a film, Living with AIDS. Sitting in the classroom, in disbelief, I watched young people at the prime of their lives wasting away in hospitals. My classmates talked in hushed tones about the horror of the disease. If they only knew who was sitting beside them . . .

That night I determined one thing: I was not going to die the slow, agonizing death of an AIDS victim. I was not going to waste away. I could not. I would not. I would choose how I would die.

After class, I got in my car. I started driving, my mind racing. It raced for hours around a track called “regrets.” Regrets about not spending more time with my family and friends. I was always too busy, too stressed. Regrets about not taking the time to find out who Kathy Dempsey really was.

Finally, I found myself in the parking lot of Chattanooga’s most famous hotel. I was about to add to its legend. All alone, I sat in my car that dark, drizzling night with a bottle of sleeping pills in my hand. Slowly I counted them.

One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . six . . . seven . . . eight . . . nine . . . ten . . . No ten, that isn’t enough. I’ve seen too many people survive on ten. I better take them all.

Three knocks on my car window jolted me back into reality. Robin, one of my friends, appeared from out of nowhere. “Kathy, are you okay?”

With tears streaming down my face, I shook my head, “No. I’m scared. I’m lonely. I’m dying!”

Robin climbed into the car beside me. “Hold on to hope,” she soothed.

“Why should I go on? There is no hope!” I responded in despair.

For hours we sat and talked and cried. For every foreboding fear I stated, Robin had a beam of hope. Somehow this angel got me through the night.

My life and this story did not end there.

Three months after my initial test, I received another phone call from my doctor.

“Kathy, I am not sure how to tell you this. It’s almost unbelievable . . . but your tests, all eight of your tests . . . have come back negative. The CDC says you are not HIV-positive!”

There was the longest silence over the phone. I took a deep breath and hung up. I’m going to live! I’m going to live! No words had ever felt so joyous! I felt like a thousand-pound weight had been lifted from my chest.

Some people call it a medical error; I call it a miracle. A gift. It was my wake-up call. I thought my life was over, and now I had it back. Like a VCR tape, I got to push “rewind.” All the regrets I had back in the car, I could amend. I fell to my knees, and promised myself from that day forward, “I will not live my life the same way again.”

In a strange and crooked way, the events of a dying man’s life changed mine forever.

Kathy B. Dempsey

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Twenty years later, Kathy volunteered in Africa helping orphans who lost parents to AIDS. She established the Keep Shedding Educational Foundation to support her efforts.

Visit www.keepshedding.com/foundation.htm. ]

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