IOWA Magazine | 06-07-2024

Historian Highlights Iowa Nurse’s Transformational Role in AIDS Epidemic

3 minute read
UI College of Nursing graduate Barbara Fassbinder was one of the nation’s first health care workers to be infected with HIV through a non-needle stick injury.
ALT PHOTO: DAILY IOWAN UI College of Nursing alum Barb Fassbinder became an advocate for awareness and compassion during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the late 1980s.

As a University of Iowa graduate student in history, Karissa Haugeberg (11PhD) worked in the Iowa Women’s Archives, which houses 1,200 manuscript collections from women across the state.

Karissa Haugebarg PHOTO COURTESY KARISSA HAUGEBERG Medical historian Karissa Haugeberg

One collection that caught Haugeberg’s attention was that of Barbara Fassbinder. A graduate of the UI College of Nursing, Fassbinder (75BSN) lived in northeast Iowa and worked as a nurse in nearby Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. As a straight, white Midwesterner and mother of three children, she was an unexpected but important voice in the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s.

During a routine ER procedure in 1986, Fassbinder applied a bare finger to a young man’s wounded arm after a failed attempt to insert a catheter. She didn’t think about how her hands were chapped from gardening, or that she wasn’t wearing gloves, which wasn’t yet standard practice for medical workers outside of the operating room. The man died that night, and an autopsy showed he had AIDS.

A few weeks later when she wasn’t feeling well, Fassbinder visited her doctor who diagnosed her with the flu. Blood tests later revealed she carried antibodies for HIV. It took months for public health officials to trace Fassbinder’s HIV status to her treatment of the man.

Fassbinder became one of the first health care workers in the country to be infected with HIV through a non-needle stick injury. In reporting intended to raise awareness that this kind of transmission was possible, the CDC referred to her as “health care worker No. 1.”

Meanwhile, Haugeberg became an associate professor of history at Tulane University in New Orleans, where she also serves as an adjunct in the School of Medicine. She established herself as a notable medical historian through her first book, which examined how the anti-abortion movement shifted from its Catholic roots to an increasingly evangelical Christian base by the early 1980s.

Fassbinder’s story and the influence she’d have on her profession are the focus of a chapter in Haugeberg’s current book project, Nursing a Revolution: Civil Rights, Feminism, and the American Nursing Profession, 1965-90. The book provides historical context for how nursing responded to major social-political events of the late 20th-century, including HIV/AIDS.

Fearful of the animosity that many people with AIDS experienced at that time, Fassbinder kept her health status private until 1990. At a press conference held at UI Hospitals & Clinics, where she was receiving treatment, she announced her condition. Immediately, says Haugeberg, “Fassbinder became a cause célèbre” appearing on the major morning TV shows and featured in magazines like Good Housekeeping. Prior to her death in 1994, Fassbinder testified before Congress and spoke at countless churches.

How Fassbinder’s faith, rural location, and role as a nurse intersected in transformational ways is central to Haugeberg’s inquiry. “Her decision to sound the alarm against mandatory HIV testing for health care workers, her advocacy in support of universal health insurance, and her efforts to combat homophobia in the heartland marked the remainder of her life,” says Haugeberg.

Haugeberg’s book features other nurses whose lives similarly intersected with social-political movements. Few if any of the people Haugeberg highlights intended to change nursing. But many of them spoke out, challenging their profession to keep pace with a changing world. As Fassbinder said, “In 1986, AIDS was considered to be a disease of the big cities. Small, rural settings such as mine in Wisconsin seemed safe.”

Because of her, people began to think and act differently.

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