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August 12: Grandma Mary and AIDS

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Grandma Mary was full of fear. She spent her days in a single room, slowly wasting away to only 95 pounds. She feared spending time with her grandchildren, afraid she would make them sick. She didn’t want any of her extended family, neighbors, or friends to know she was dying. She even felt rejected by God. She carried a secret that was extremely stigmatizing in the 1980s and early 1990s. She had AIDS.

Grandma Mary, a pseudonym, got AIDS from a blood transfusion in 1984. By 1990 she was one of 81 people in North Dakota who the disease. Even though it cannot spread through a hug, her fear prevented her from touching her grandchildren. The sores on her skin kept her home, out of fear that people would know of her illness. Her friend, a nurse, wanted to lift Grandma Mary’s spirits, so the Bismarck Tribune ran a story about her, and gave a post office box address for people to write her.

On this date in 1990 the Bismarck Tribune reported that Grandma Mary had received 300 letters. Mary said, “I was amazed. It was overwhelming. It was a surprising, amazing thing to happen to me.” She treasured the outpouring of love. She also spoke of her admiration for Ryan White, an HIV positive teenager who had not been allowed to attend school. She was devastated when he died in 1990. Grandma Mary died the following year, having never revealed her identity.

In 1987 at least two children with AIDS were attending schools in North Dakota. State policy required doctors to let school district superintendents know if a child in their district had AIDS, but the children’s doctors refused to comply in order to protect the children’s privacy.

While Grandma Mary lived in fear and died for lack of useful medications, North Dakotans today can live freely with an AIDS diagnosis. Decades of education has reduced stigma, and medications allow AIDS patients to live full lives. As of the end of 2020 there were 500 individuals in North Dakota living with HIV/AIDS.

Dakota Datebook by Trista Raezer-Stursa

Associated Press, “2 N.D. Students with AIDS Virus Apparently in School,” The Fargo Forum, September 29, 1987, pg. B1.
Associated Press, “Four New N.D. AIDS Cases Include State’s First Woman,” The Fargo Forum, December 31, 1986, pg. B7.
Associated Press, “N.D. Children With AIDS Virus Hope to Remain Unidentified,” The Fargo Forum, October 2, 1987, pg. A12.
Donahue, Kathleen, “A ‘Sword Hanging’ Over Her,” The Bismarck Tribune, August 12, 1990, pg. 1A, 10A.
Donahue, Kathleen, “A Grandma, She has AIDS,” The Bismarck Tribune, July 16, 1990, pg. 1A, 10A.
Donahue, Kathleen, “Grandma Mary Died Knowing She Was Loved,” The Bismarck Tribune, March 29, 1991, pg. 2B.
Donahue, Kathleen, “Grandma Treasures the Mail,” The Bismarck Tribune, August 12, 1990, pg. 10A.
Forum and wire reports, “Fargo AIDS Death Confirmed,” The Fargo Forum, September 26, 1985, pg. A1, A12.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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