NEW PORT RICHEY — In the 1980s, most people believed a diagnosis of HIV would inevitably lead to AIDS — at the time, the equivalent of a death sentence.
The public feared the disease. Some declared that AIDS was God's justice to homosexuals and IV-drug users.
Maureen Kennedy, an AIDS care coordinator from HPH Hospice, had a different message to share. AIDS was a human disease, she said — contracted by infants in the womb, unsuspecting spouses and, yes, drug users.
Most important, she said with an artist's hands and her therapeutic touch, they were people.
To spread that message, Ms. Kennedy made masks of AIDS patients' faces. She put a gummy substance over a patient's face, then peeled it off. She then held in her hands a lifelike facsimile of the person's face.
To soothing music, she finished the mask in her kitchen. She pulled these masks together in the late 1990s in a daring exhibit. She called it The Face of AIDS.
Ms. Kennedy died at home March 29 of a respiratory disorder. She was 54. She left HPH Hospice (formerly known as Hernando-Pasco Hospice) several years ago after a car accident left her with serious injuries.
The Face of AIDS traveled to high schools. Teenagers walked inside black partitions where they faced masks that once covered someone who had breath in their lungs. Visitors pushed a button beside each mask to hear a message the patient had recorded.
As the teens listened on headphones, chatter turned to whispers and whispers sometimes to tears. Some wrote messages on a wall of grief about people they knew who had died of AIDS.
The exhibit went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Inspired by the pile of shoes from Holocaust victims, Mrs. Kennedy made her own — a 4-foot-tall pile capped by a little girl's tiny pink shoes.
"To Maureen, the disease had a face," said HPH spokeswoman Robin Kocher. "She wanted to put a face on the disease and make it personal for those who toured the exhibit. Through her talent, she communicated to others that people with HIV and AIDS are just like them. She gave people the ability to touch the face of someone with AIDS, to get close to them through the stories they heard."
After several years, funding for Ms. Kennedy's AIDS program ran dry. Public perception of a lessened danger may have had something to do with that.
Pharmaceutical interventions — a combination of anti-AIDS drugs euphemistically called "the cocktail" — have prolonged lives dramatically since the 1980s. But it should not be seen as a panacea, Kocher warned.
"I think most of us think, 'Okay, I'm going to get the cocktail and I'm going to be fine,' " she said. "But as the disease progresses, you have to adjust that in order to continue to try to maintain your health and your lifestyle. And as you do that, it does have an adverse effect and there are side effects that you have to deal with."
About 60 percent of Ms. Kennedy's sculpted AIDS masks have made their way back to owners or family members.
The rest are lying in storage.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or email@example.com.