Little Sammy Died of AIDS!
LITTLE Sammy Kushnick’s parents, Jerrold and Helen, had no idea that their young son was dying of AIDS. How could a loved and well-cared-for three-year-old in this Jewish family possibly have got this terrifying disease?
A specialist told them: “He got it from a blood transfusion.”
The Kushnicks said: “We didn’t know he had been transfused at all.” Unknown to them, their infant son had received 20 transfusions from 13 different donors before he ever left the hospital. Jerry Kushnick later told Awake! that the transfusions ranged “from 5 cc to 17 cc—from less than a teaspoon to about a tablespoonful.” At least one of them—which some donor may have been told would be a gift of life—actually turned out to be a gift of death.
Sam, and his twin sister Sara, were born seven weeks prematurely, on August 19, 1980. Both had respiratory and other problems common to premature infants, but they came through these. The relieved parents brought Sara home at six weeks, Sam at seven. Their father said: “We thought we were taking home two healthy children; we were very excited to have both of them. They grew beautifully.”
Sammy’s mother said: “Sam didn’t grow quite as rapidly as Sara did, but they told us that boys didn’t develop as fast as girls.”
Then other problems began to develop. Toward the end of 1982, Sam got a perpetual cold. In February he got an ear infection and was put on antibiotics. Diarrhea developed, but the doctor thought this was a side effect of the antibiotics.
The Kushnicks insisted on a series of tests, but the doctors found only a slight anemia and a high gamma globulin level. The pediatrician said this meant that Sam had very strong body defenses. Later they learned that it was a sign that something had gone seriously wrong with his immune system.
Then Sam developed oral thrush—Candida—a white spot in the mouth. He had another infection, then a fever that never went away. His mother said: “He just lost all interest—he was literally exhausted.” Then one Sunday his lips began turning blue. She said: “I took him to the hospital. They drew blood, and it was purple from lack of oxygen.”
“He Has AIDS”
When the news came back from the lab, it was bad. Sam had a rare form of pneumonia known as Pneumocystis carinii. Jerry says the doctor explained: “When we say Pneumocystis carinii, we mean AIDS.” Imagine the shock! Helen recalls that the doctor said that “there wasn’t a chance for him to survive—it was just a question of how long he’d live, but there was no recovery.” Little Samuel Kushnick died less than three weeks later.
His father said: “There were many, many caring doctors.” One was Dr. Arthur Ammann, a leading authority on transfusion-AIDS, whom the Kushnicks brought down from San Francisco the day before Sam died. Dr. Ammann had reported a case of a 20-month-old transfusion-AIDS victim back in 1982.* Helen recalls that he said of Sam: “He has AIDS, and he got it from a blood transfusion. From going through his neonatal charts, I can tell you it’s probably one of these five donors—these are the ones they should look at first.”
Sam’s father told Awake! that the doctors “did not want to show AIDS on the death certificate” but finally did so. Helen added: “We had been stonewalled by the hospital and the blood-bank people, who kept telling us that Sam could not possibly have got AIDS from a blood transfusion. Then we found out that Sam was the fourth baby to die in Los Angeles in an eight-month period of what pediatricians were calling Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome—pediatric AIDS.”
The Kushnicks are convinced that there are many more cases of blood-transfused pediatric AIDS than the statistics show.
Transmission by Casual Contact?
Helen said: “I hope everybody calms down so they can understand that it is a virus, that it’s sexually transmitted, and that it’s transmitted by blood transfusion, but if it were casually contracted by saliva or in any other way, we’d all be dead.” The Kushnicks had not known that Sam had AIDS, so they had taken no special precautions.
Yet what did the tests later show? Helen answered: “We proved negative in every respect. We don’t have antibodies—which means we haven’t even been exposed to the virus. Sara was also negative in every respect.”
Since the Kushnick’s case has become widely known, they have heard from other families who had not known that their child had AIDS and so likewise had taken no extraordinary precautions. The members of these families, too, have all proved negative in tests. Helen said: “What they know now is that the virus doesn’t live very long outside the body, and every indication is that it cannot be passed on by casual contact.”
She produced a copy of the August 30, 1985, issue of MMWR, which says: “Other than the sexual partners of . . . [AIDS-virus]-infected patients and infants born to infected mothers, none of the family members of the over 12,000 AIDS patients reported to CDC have been reported to have AIDS.”
Jerry thinks the real worry of families of AIDS victims is that they might give the victim his or her final illness—the one that the AIDS-weakened immune system can no longer fight off. So a family member who uses the tub “must bleach it out before the AIDS victim can take a bath.” If you have a cough or the flu, you worry: “Will I literally become the giver of death by transmitting this disease to him?”
The Other Child
When the people at Sara’s nursery school heard that Sam had AIDS, some of them panicked. Jerry said: “Even after they had been advised by physicians and a representative of the Los Angeles County Health Department that Sara had been tested, was healthy, and could not possibly be a carrier, they still refused her return to school.”
The Kushnicks transferred Sara to a nursery school at their own synagogue, where they say the few parents who objected were told: “Sara stays. If your child goes, we’ll take the next child on our waiting list. Sara is healthy. We’re not going to throw her out.”
The Kushnicks think there will soon be thousands of such cases of children who have relatives with AIDS. Helen asked: “What are we going to do? Provide them all with special tutoring?”
The Risk Grows
AIDS symptoms can take five years or longer to manifest themselves, so no one knows how many people are walking the streets with this disease. Jerry worries that drug-abusing prostitutes will pass it on to men who will bring it home to their wives, who through pregnancy could eventually pass it on to their child. He feels that people should be made aware of the dangers that can occur from multiple sex partners.
Jerry Kushnick is a theatrical attorney. His wife is a theatrical manager. Their clients include major American television producers, writers, and comedians. He told Awake!: “Since the death of our son, there is a part of our life that will always be missing. My sense of values has changed drastically. I don’t need material things anymore. I find little desire to buy new things since our son’s death. I certainly would trade everything that we have if it could bring Sam back!”
The Kushnicks say they thought seriously about whether they should go public with their story. Not all parents in their position have wanted it known that their child had AIDS, and young Sara’s experience helps to explain why. Helen said: “We talked about it and decided that if we didn’t do it, we would be accessories to murder. We felt that we had to make other parents aware of the problems that could be caused by blood transfusion.”
They feel that blood banking has become a big business, the policies of which are largely determined by the blood-banking industry itself. Helen also explained: “We wanted people to know that fear is not a cure for this disease. Funding of research to find a cure is what must be done.”
The Kushnicks have appeared on national television in the United States, Australia, and England. Their story has been told in newspapers and periodicals throughout the world, including the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and People magazine. They believe they have saved many lives by calling people’s attention to the part blood can play in transmitting AIDS.
This case was reported in MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report), published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, December 10, 1982. Dr. Ammann’s report of that case, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, April 30, 1983, said: “A disturbing observation in this report is that the platelet donor was healthy [when he gave the blood] and did not become ill with AIDS until 7 months after donation . . . The patient died aged 2 years with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia.”