Postman's fear of AIDS stops their mail, but sparks others' support Scarlet Letters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Charleston, W.Va. -- When Pat and Fred Grounds moved into their new home a woman who lives down the street took over zucchini and butternut squash from her garden.

But one of their next door neighbors put up a 12-foot privacy fence.

The young couple across the way invited them to use the backyard pool anytime they wanted.

And the postman refused to deliver their mail.

Pat and Fred have full-blown AIDS. They trace their disease to treatments Fred received here in the early 1980s for his hemophilia. They came back home to this river town from Laurel, four years ago, already gravely ill. Now, as Fred edges ever closer to death, their mailman's refusal to touch their mail has thrust the couple into a sad and unsought celebrity.

Mail carrier Tim Snodgrass, who has been fired by the postal service, voiced all the fears and prejudices that survive about AIDS after nearly a decade of research, education and publicity.

He said he was afraid he could get AIDS from envelopes the Groundses licked or from cutting himself on their mail slot.

No one has ever reported getting AIDS from saliva. That's casual contact, say experts at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and you don't get AIDS from casual contact. No mailman has ever contracted AIDS in the line of duty.

But no amount of explanation could get Mr. Snodgrass to deliver mail to the Groundses. Mr. Snodgrass argued that he wouldn't have to deliver the mail if there were a vicious dog in the yard.

Pat and Fred were shocked, but they were more hurt and disappointed than angry.

"Being compared to a vicious dog is a real hurtful thing for me," Pat Grounds says. "There's nothing vicious about me. There's nothing vicious about my life. I would never do anything hurtful to anybody.

"If Fred or myself thought that we were a menace or a harm to society, we would be the first ones to remove ourselves from society.

"I'll show you how much of a vicious dog I am," she says. "I'm concerned about this man losing his job over this situation, because I don't know if he's got a family. I didn't set out to hurt this person. He hurt himself by being ignorant."

For a decade, the public has been assured that AIDS is spread only through intimate contact with blood, semen, vaginal secretions or breast milk. You don't get AIDS from hugs, shaking hands, toilets seats, drinking glasses, or even a friendly kiss. It's not an airborne disease.

Yet people like the postman continue to shrink in fear from those with AIDS.

Just last month White House security guards embarrassed President Clinton and infuriated AIDS activists and lots of just plain compassionate Americans by donning blue rubber gloves to inspect the belongings of a delegation of gay elected officials.

"The whole thing highlights how far we've come and how far we've got to go," says Mike Nelson, a North Carolina alderman who was at the White House meeeting. "Here we are about to have this historic meeting with the first president who has invited gays and lesbians to the White House, and we're faced with this kind of prejudice at the door."

The lingering stigma associated with AIDS has touched the Groundses before. Pat has been barred from a tanning studio and rejected by a manicurist.

But the interruption in their mail delivery produced an outpouring of sympathy. Every day Pat and Fred receive letters of support from across the country. The phone starts ringing at 6 a.m. and doesn't stop until late in the evening.

"I wanted to reach out to you and share good thoughts and welcome you to write to me any time you want to know someone cares," a New Jersey clergyman says. A California couple encloses a newspaper clipping of their story and urges them to sue the Postal Service.

A letter from the Mesick, Mich., Post Office brings tears to Pat's eyes. "We would be happy to serve you and would do so with pride," writes Jacqueline Bourgard, the postmaster.

Another letter is sympathetic, but the writer hopes their plight will create remorse among gays for "their unhealthy lifestyle."

"But you know what," Pat says, "I don't blame my disease on the gay community. I appreciate the thought and the concern and the prayers, but I think that we're all created the same."

Pat and Fred Grounds have always been hard-working, community-oriented, family-centered, God-fearing, church-going people. Pat's father, John Johnson, is an ordained Pentecostal minister with his own church, Calvary Apostolic Church, in Gaithersburg.

Pat believes the strength of her belief in God protects her from bitterness and anger and, in fact, keeps her and her husband alive.

'God is not ready for us yet'

"Not many people live for four years with full-blown AIDS," she says, "and that's really a testimony in our lives to what God is really doing for us. It just makes me want to scream from the rooftops that God is not ready for us yet."

She and Fred, both 46, remain youthful looking, despite AIDS. But Fred's face is drawn and pinched behind a weedy beard and mustache.

Fred got the disease from two infusions of an HIV-contaminated blood-clotting factor he received in the early 1980s for his hemophilia. Hemophiliacs of his generation have been devastated by AIDS. Because of compromised blood, perhaps half the 20,000 hemophiliacs in America in the 1980s contracted AIDS.

Fred has had full-blown AIDS since 1991. He once was a strapping 216-pound coal miner. He's lost 80 pounds since last winter.

"He has an opportunistic infection called cryptosporidium," Pat says. "It's a critter that gets into your intestines. It comes from the water."

The cryptosporidium protozoa causes diarrhea in people with normal immune systems. But for people with AIDS, the diarrhea is "chronic, severe and life threatening." Pat injects Fred with an anti-diarrheal drug every eight hours.

"My life's going down the drain," Fred says with black humor. "Makes you lose a lot of weight."

His voice is soft and low and gravelly. He coughs often and tires easily. He's essentially without an immune system, as measured by "T-cells," which are disease-fighting white blood cells. People with full-blown AIDS usually have fewer than 200 T-cells for each microliter of blood.

"A normal person might have a thousand, 1,200, while I don't have any, haven't had any for a long time," Fred says. "That's what makes it so easy for me to catch colds and anything else that's laying around."

The virus passed from Fred to Pat. She was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS last November when her T-cell count dropped to 180. From November to April her count dropped to 80.

"I've been sick but not like Fred," she says. "I was always more symptomatic when the whole thing got started, but he always had less T-cells."

The language of AIDS

AIDS patients become fluent in the lingo of medicine, the nomenclature of death. Pat's symptoms include years of chronic diarrhea, shingles, drug reactions, back pain.

"All in all," she says, "even though I'm fatigued an awful lot, and I have lots of problems with my allergies, and stomach troubles, I still feel pretty good."

She remains bright, cheerful, articulate and compassionate, a smiling, round-faced, shortish woman who claims hopefully to be 4-foot, 11 1/2 -inches tall. She's also tough and strong enough to have been one of the first to go underground when West Virginia coal mines began hiring women in the early 1980s.

"I was a good miner," she says. "It was really important for me to prove myself. I didn't want anybody to say I was there just because I was a woman. I wanted to do a good job. And I think I did."

She pulled her own weight, as they say in the mines. She also pulls her weight, maybe more, as a wife and daughter, mother and grandmother. She's got a son and a daughter from a previous marriage and three grandchildren. Her father and mother and a couple of grandchildren are visiting now.

"If AIDS was a casual contact disease," Pat says. "I would be scared to death to interact with my family the way I have for the past 13 years.

"My grandchildren sit on my lap," she says. "They get in bed with Mamaw and Papaw, me and my husband, and have a nap. They hug us and kiss us.

"I'm such a family-oriented person. My children and my grandchildren and my parents are my life and, of course, my husband, also. This is my family. I love them."

Pat and Fred are widely respected and fondly remembered by people in both hemophilia and AIDS support groups in Baltimore. They lived in Columbia, Gambrills, Elkridge and Laurel for about six years before moving home to West Virginia in 1991.

They were faithful participants in an AIDS support group led by Joseph Jacques, an all but legendary volunteer at Baltimore's HERO AIDS center.

"They came to be helped," Mr. Jacques says. "But they were ready to help anybody. They didn't care about color, gender or sexual orientation. They treated humanity as humanity."

"They're both very beautiful people," says Mr. Jacques, a psychologist who has been HIV-positive since 1983.

He is appalled by the way they were treated by the mailman, calling it "disgusting" and completely unjustified.

"We are not dangerous," he says. "In fact, he's more dangerous to them than they are to him."

In Maryland, both Pat and Fred both worked for Laurel Sand and Gravel Company, where Pat's father has worked for more than 30 years. Pat was also a teller at First National Banks in Pikesville and in Columbia.

Going home

When Fred's infection became full-blown AIDS in 1991, he and Pat decided to return to the place where they were born and grew up and have their families.

"I love these mountains," Pat says. "There's so much beauty here. And most of the people here are wonderful people."

She loves the house they moved into on June 15. It's already getting the easy clutter of a lived-in home and there's a ceramic plaque by the door that says: "Welcome, The Grounds." It's a brick and frame house in a comfortable, homey neighborhood on the high banks of the Kanawha River. The Kanawha, pronounced "K-naw" hereabouts, flows northwestward past the gilded dome of the Capitol of the State of West Virginia.

The house is provided by Covenant House, an independent agency supported by a coalition of about 30 Charleston churches. Covenant House serves people with AIDS, the homeless, single mothers and pretty nearly anybody who asks for help. The Grounds pay $300 a month rent.

Their neighbors were a bit apprehensive at first.

"We had a community meeting," Pat says. "We addressed their concerns and fears about AIDS."

Symbolism carried the day when their doctor, Sandra Elliott, walked in with her young son and sat down next to the Groundses, says Barbara Ferraro, a director of Covenant House.

"With the exception of one or two people, there was overwhelming support," Ms. Ferraro says. "Pat and Fred put a human face on their disease."

Fred is, in fact, a hospice patient, which means he's at the verge of death. He's been there before. He coughs and wryly ticks off his medical problems: "I've had asthma all my life, hemophilia, having lung cancer, having a heart attack, and I have AIDS. Other than that I'm doing pretty good."

"It's really hard to see the person you love slipping away from you every day," Pat says. "Some days Fred gets so tired of being sick. He gets discouraged.

"I feel like I'm a failure when I can't pick him up," she says. "But I'm learning I'm not a failure. It's just part of AIDS."

Fred had a "silent" heart attack at the end of January.

"They really gave up on me," he says. "They really didn't think I was going to make it."

Dr. Elliott rushed to the hospital at 3 a.m. in a raging snowstorm to be with her patient. She took his hand and asked again whether he wanted any life support. Fred said no machines.

Dr. Elliott doesn't know how he survives, medically speaking, Pat says, "She admits it's the Lord that's keeping him going."

"I know for a fact that it's the Lord," Fred says.

"She says it's all the great work that we're doing," Pat says, "and all the education that we're doing. Because we travel all over the state for the West Virginia Health Department.

Traveling the state

"We talk to schools and churches and communities" about AIDS, she says. "I particularly love it when I speak to students. We talked to over 800 students recently at a middle school in Jackson County, W.Va. I was on a high for three days.

"They asked some of the most wonderful questions, and they were so responsive, it was great," Pat says. "One of the questions was: have we ever thought of committing suicide? I thought that was a great question.

"I said 'Absolutely not,' " Pat says. "Five minutes after I took myself out, my miracle or my cure might come. There's no way."

She laughs.

"Be our luck, wouldn't it?" Fred says.

"Yeah."

"But," Fred says, "you know with all the bad things that have happened to still be here, to be able to sit here in this living room and talk is wonderful."

"I'm just grateful to open my eyes every day," Pat says.

Her father, John Johnson, the Pentecostal preacher, punctuates the conversation with his soft voice: "I think that most AIDS patients die because of lack of love."

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