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AIDS-the acronym shouts fear. It's the diagnosis with a death sentence. It nags at every nurse who handles body fluids and contaminated needles. It's hard not to wonder, Could it happen to me?

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Figure. Mary Ernst, ... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Mary Ernst, RN

Mary Ernst, an RN in Texas, accidentally stuck herself with a contaminated needle in 1990. In 1991 she discovered that she was HIV-positive. Mary was a walking time bomb, and she knew it.


At about the same time, a man named Tony heard the awful news from his doctor. He had AIDS. Tony knew his homosexual lifestyle was the cause.


Both Mary and Tony joined the AIDS Coalition, a support group.


"Tony was a great comfort and encouragement to me," Mary recalls. "He said, 'Hold on. There's still life to be lived.'"


Mary's tragic health report was not her first crisis. It would not be her last. The daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor, she had watched her father lose his ability to quote Scripture as Alzheimer's snatched his once razor-sharp memory.


Mary had married a pastor, but they divorced, and she raised their three children alone, amid the pain of divorce. She supported herself as a critical care nurse. Then she faced the incident with the infected needle and the horrible diagnosis. She began a journal. "Years ago there was so much ignorance about this disease that I had no one to talk to."


The doctor delivered the news with little regard for Mary's feelings, perhaps covering his discomfort. Mary explained, "I had given blood for a friend who was in a car accident. After it was tested the doctor came to me, never making eye contact, looking at the floor, saying, 'I'm sorry, but you're HIV-positive.' He left, never mentioning help or medications or anything to give me hope. It was devastating."


Even her pastor and his wife were insensitive. "When I told them, you could see the wheels turning as they wondered, Who was she with? Is she a drug user? People turned their backs on me. Some asked me point blank, 'Who did you sleep with?' It was hard on me as a Christian woman and nurse who had been infected in the course of my work and not as a result of my lifestyle."


She changed churches. She also found comfort at the AIDS Coalition, among other patients. She watched as Tony and others became ill, and many died.


Eventually, Tony's lover died. Mary attended the funeral. Only nine people were there. His family had abandoned him because of his lifestyle. They wanted nothing to do with him, even in death.


By now Mary had read the book, Burden of a Secret, by Dr. Jimmy Allen, a chaplain at a north Georgia resort. It was the story of his family's struggle as his daughter-in-law and two grandchildren died of AIDS as a result of an HIV-contaminated blood transfusion. The deaths occurred in the late 1970s and early '80s. In the process, Dr. Allen's son turned his back on God. The book helped Mary to see the dangers of keeping such a struggle secret. She began to devise a plan.


"I saw people out there hurting, not just because of AIDS: people with catastrophic illnesses-cancer, diabetes, stroke-modern-day lepers to many people. I thought Christians should be going to the highways and byways, helping these people, demonstrating Christ's love, telling them about a relationship with him.


"I went to my pastor and told him I felt called into some type of ministry. I had been studying Experiencing God and wanted to join the Lord in his work. My pastor prayed with me for direction. He said that it was a struggle for me-finding the balance between blabbing about my illness and using that energy to help others. I needed confidence."


At about the same time, Mary's church had a revival, and several Mission Service Corps volunteers came to speak. Mary sensed an opportunity and an answer to her search. "God began opening doors right and left." She decided to begin an evangelistic ministry for people with catastrophic illnesses and to name it The Comfort Zone. That was in 1995.


"Now my candle is not under a bushel. It's shining for others to see." She was named as her denomination's Missionary Service Corps Volunteer of the Year in 2000.


Mary's work with The Comfort Zone increased, but she did not abandon her friends at the AIDS Coalition, most of whom were in the gay lifestyle. She knew the pain of rejection and refused to turn her back. She also would not condemn. She chose to love, although their sin was not lovable to her.


"Once I even bought cigarettes for Tony. That would be controversial to most Christians, but under the circumstances I believe it was caring," Mary said. Tony could see that Mary loved him unconditionally. One day he began to ask questions. "How can you be so loving?" he wanted to know. Other heterosexuals were not forgiving; in fact, most Christians condemned him.


Mary offered Tony some literature she received from a ministry for homosexuals coming out of the lifestyle. Soon, she began to notice changes in Tony. One day he told her, "I want what you have."


She replied, "Are you ready to turn over what's left of your life to Christ?"


He said he was. They prayed together. He also renounced his gay lifestyle and maintained that attitude for the rest of his life. Before he died, Tony told Mary, "Get to the young people. Tell them to be careful. Sex is not a toy. I started experimenting as a youngster, and this is how I turned out. Now I regret it."


Tony's nurses told Mary that he died peacefully and quietly, a rarity among the hundreds of AIDS patients whom they had witnessed leaving this earth screaming.


"Now when I put my arms around a homosexual and say I love him and that Jesus died for him, I realize that my own diagnosis has meaning. I even have those days-not every day, of course-when I can say, 'I'm glad, Lord, that I have this disease, because it has opened doors for me to tell others about you.'"


JCN recently spoke with Mary. She retired from clinical nursing in 1997 and shifted her focus to speaking and educating others about AIDS and HIV awareness. She encourages nurses to learn more about AIDS and HIV on both personal and professional levels. Community involvement from Christians at local, county and state levels is needed. For many AIDS patients, medication is a huge obstacle. Organizations such as the AIDS Coalition of Coastal Texas are available to assist.


Mary sometimes questions if God still plans to use her through her speaking ministry. It generally isn't long before the phone rings, and she is asked, "Can you speak for our conference?"


Mary trusts God to provide the energy needed for each day and for each opportunity to educate others. She stated, "Being HIV-positive has given me opportunities to meet people I never would have met otherwise."