Profiles in Nursing
Barbara Fassbinder, the First Healthcare Worker to Contract HIV
When she was a little girl, Barbara Fassbinder probably thought she would have an ordinary life: marriage, children and a career in nursing. And for quite a while, her life was just like that. She graduated high school in 1971 and married Dave Fassbinder before earning a nursing degree from the University of Iowa in 1975. Her husband was a commercial bee raiser, and together they had three children. Life in a small Midwestern town had its joys.
Then one day in August 1986, everything went wrong. Fassbinder made the deadly mistake of caring for a patient. Because of it she became the first healthcare worker documented to have contracted HIV other than through a puncture. It was in the days before universal precautions were, well, universal. Yes, you might wear gloves if something looked particularly nasty; but, no, you wouldn’t to remove IV lines. The cuts from a weekend of gardening left Barbara’s hands vulnerable to infection, and that is exactly what happened.
The autopsy of the young man she contracted it from showed the cause of death to be AIDS. Fifteen employees who had participated in the efforts to resuscitate him were offered testing. Barbara Fassbinder’s came back positive for HIV.
At first she didn’t believe the results. When a second test came back positive, she was stunned but not defeated. True, for four years, she and her husband kept the secret. Eventually, after discovering that the burden is on the employee to prove workplace exposure and that compensation is woefully inadequate, she negotiated a settlement for her medical care. Fassbinder also began to see that unless she spoke up, many more nurses might find themselves in her predicament. “If it could happen to me,” she said, “it can happen to anybody. I just couldn’t live with myself not warning people how important the precautions are and how your life depends on it.”
Barbara Fassbinder’s campaign started out with her local newspaper and grew from there. Before she died in 1994, she appeared before Congress to testify against mandatory testing and disclosure for healthcare personnel and patients. She decried the financial ruin and loss of career that befalls healthcare workers when they become ill because of exposure in the workplace, and she understood that fear could delay diagnosis and treatment.
Her work with the Center for Disease Control and the American Nurses Association, the Association of Critical Care Nurses and the Association of Operating Room Nurses emphasized the need for barrier precautions, sensibly and seriously applied. These joint efforts forced OSHA to make employers address workplace hazards, with strict penalties for noncompliance. In 1992, the ANA named her Nurse of the Year, and both the Surgeon General and the Department of Health and Human Services publicly recognized her work.
Fassbinder’s impact on nursing is critical. She remained angry yet insightful about her illness. “Think about it this way,” she said, “You’re traveling down a mountain road. You see a guardrail. How many people had to go over the edge before they put the guardrail up? We were a few of those people who had to go over the edge.”
Mostly, she urged compassion for patients, understanding, as many did not, that the real enemy is the disease.
Elizabeth Hanink, RN, PHN, BSN is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.
This article is from workingnurse.com.