1. Archive

Learning AIDS

The slip of a girl was just 13 when middle school nurse Louise Whelen sat her down to have a serious talk about the responsibilities that come with being sexually active.

"I was telling her about using protection, about having respect for yourself and your body, about love and family and how that's important, when she stopped me cold," said Whelen. "She told me, "That's what's wrong; you people are still under the assumption that sex and love are the same thing.' "

"I was floored," said Whelen, who now serves as a school nurse at River Ridge Middle/High School. "She was just this tiny little thing."

It sometimes seems like an uphill battle for Whelen and other school nurses, who are up against a younger generation's often cavalier attitude toward sex and all that comes with it.

Still, school nurses throughout Pasco County are doing their part to educate teens about the pitfalls of casual sex.

At some schools, it starts with life management classes in freshman year: talks on abstaining and how to prevent sexually transmited diseases.

As sophomores, there are classroom visits from people with AIDS who come to speak about the virus that causes AIDS and how it has affected their quality of life.

Juniors are taken through Hernando/Pasco Hospice's, "The Face of Aids," a multifaceted exhibit by local artist Maureen Kennedy that features masks, the "faces" of the young, old and in-between who have been infected with AIDS.

As high school seniors, they sit in the audience while their peers from Gulf and Ridgewood high schools present the play, The Inner Circle, about a teenager who dies from AIDS.

"There's nothing worse than hearing, "We've already heard it, we've already seen it,' " said Whelen, who last week took River Ridge students through the Face of Aids tour. "I'm very concerned. Girls ages 16 through 22 are the latest growing population that are being infected."

"Kids at this age think they're invincible," said Barbara Toth, the school nurse at Ridgewood High. "So we try to approach them in different ways."

Toth says she is especially concerned about the latest statistics released in December from the Florida Department of Health.

"It's pretty alarming to see that 1 out of 168 people in Florida are HIV infected," Toth said.

Other worrisome facts from the Health Department: Every day, 32 people in Florida are diagnosed with AIDS or HIV; women are the fastest growing group of people diagnosed with AIDS; HIV/AIDS is the fourth leading cause of death among 25- to 44-year-olds in Florida and the leading cause of death among blacks in this age group.

"It's (HIV/AIDS) not something you see in the news so much any more," said Toth. "I tell the kids, "You haven't heard about it, you haven't read about it, but it's still out there.' "

"We talk to the kids about abstaining, that's our first goal," said Toth. "We tell them casual sex is not something to play with."

Although there is concern for today's teens, Toth says she is heartened by the students who visit her office or express how they have been touched after listening to recordings of those who have been infected while walking through the Face of AIDS exhibit.

Kids like 16 year-old Elena Bowen, a River Ridge student who last week spent some time reflecting on her personal experience watching family members with AIDS after viewing the exhibit.

"My aunt died of AIDS. She was 29. I was only 10 years old when she died. My mom says I have her hands. I would have loved to have one of those (masks) of my aunt," said Elena. "You hear kids talk about it (AIDS). You can show them the videos, but until you have someone in your family.....Maybe this will help."

"These programs are still valuable," said Toth. "Many times I hear kids saying, "This made it real for me' or "I'm going to get tested' or "I'm going to remain a virgin.' Studies are saying the more young people are choosing abstinence.

"It helps to know for that for a period of time, at least, some of them were listening."