The Strange Case of Dr. Acer: How one dentist changed the narrative of HIV infections in South Florida

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What was primarily thought to be a “gay plague” was a full on epidemic by the late 1980s.  Five Treasure Coast area dentist patients of Dr. David Johnson Acer never would have thought this epidemic, mostly affecting drug users and gay men, would ever have affected them. 

A 19-year-old University of Florida student, a 65-year-old retired Palm City schoolteacher, a 31-year-old Indiantown farmer, a 34-year-old Stuart father to be, and a 34-year-old Michigan resident who visited Dr. Acer for one procedure before moving from Florida all became the first victims to contract AIDS from a healthcare worker.  

Did Dr. Acer not sterilize his instruments properly?  Did he inject his own blood into his patients? Or, was this just some strange coincidence? There are many theories and any of these scenarios are plausible, because to this day nobody knows how he did this or if he is even guilty at all.

After having briefly been an Air Force dentist, Dr. Acer came to Florida in 1982, opening a practice on Federal Highway in Jensen Beach.  It was a successful one, he saw about 10 patients a day and by 1987 had 1,900 in his practice. He made a salary of about $50,000 (about $109,000 with inflation) and owned a large home in Stuart. Most of his patients and colleagues described him as a calm, quiet, guy with a gentle personality.

What none of his 1,900 patients knew was that Dr. Acer was gay. At this time on the Treasure Coast, there was no gay scene like there was to the south and coming out would be professional suicide. An even bigger secret Dr. Acer was hiding was that he may have been exposed to the AIDS virus in 1986. This was confirmed after he visited a West Palm Beach oral surgeon in September 1987 and was formally diagnosed with Kaposi Sarcoma. Even though he explained he was a dentist, because of state confidentiality laws surrounding AIDS, he was not obligated to tell anyone he did not want to. 

Kimberly Bergalis visited Dr. Acer in December 1987. At the time she thought Dr. Acer looked fine. She distinctly remembered his bright blue eyes.  A painless procedure, the rest of her family would seek treatment from him.

In late 1988, Lisa Shoemaker was in process of relocating back to her native Michigan.  While preparing for her move she started experiencing mouth pain. She visited Dr. Acer who performed a series of root canals. She claimed that his office seemed dirty and he kept his shirt buttoned all the way up to cover what looked like lesions on his neck.  One notorious thing she remembered was his sweating and his constant coughing.

In 1989 Dr. Acer was too weak to work. He came out to his family and staff about his sexuality but lied about his health. He told them he had cancer. Despite that lie there were rumors that he was gay and his deteriorating health was AIDS related. He sold his practice to another dentist who would remark how dirty everything seemed, so much so he tossed a lot of the equipment and only kept the waiting room furniture.

By 1990 six of Dr. Acer’s patients tested positive for AIDS, including Kimberly Bergalis and Lisa Shoemaker. None understood how they contracted it but some suspected the dentist due to the rumors surrounding his health. Initially the Center for Disease control didn’t buy this since people had never contracted AIDS from their dentist. 

The CDC investigated thoroughly including one interview with a very weak Dr. Acer at his home. Dr. Acer got a lawyer. Hepatitis transmits similar to AIDS and had been passed on via dentists prior, so the conclusion on July 27, 1990 was that this was indeed possible. Dr. Acer’s lawyer advised him to let his 1,900 patients know the truth of his condition so they could be tested. 

On August 31, 1990 Dr. Acer published a letter in the Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post and several Treasure Coast area newspapers stating "I am David J. Acer, and I have AIDS.”  He went on to claim he “religiously” followed CDC guidelines and that he was a good person and would never knowingly have infected his patients. His condition declined very fast after this and shortly after being relocated to the Hospice of Palm Beach County, he died there on September 3.

Kimberly Bergalis (19) and Lisa Shoemaker (34) both became outspoken AIDS activists. The other 4 victims all came forward with their stories after Acer’s death. All had nearly the identical strains of the virus and similar stories about Dr. Acer. This was the first AIDS case where the people of South Florida really became aware that anyone can be infected in many ways, and not just through sex and more importantly that you didn't have to be gay.

Dr. Acer’s estate was plagued with lawsuits accusing him of malpractice. It has been concluded that, while very likely, it is not certain Dr. Acer passed this virus to his patients.  According to the Palm Beach County Health Department there has been no cases like this since then.

If he did pass it on, it is a medical mystery as to how he did it. Some say he deliberately injected his blood into his patients, though this has been refuted by investigators and the victims. It’s also virtually impossible since small amounts of blood only risk a 1/300 chance. Six victims would be remarkable if this was true.  

It is thought nonetheless that he may have had a particularly high viral load at the time. This theory comes from Edward Parsons, an HIV positive nurse who was let go from his job because of his condition and a close friend of Dr. Acer’s. He claimed Dr. Acer had a motive.  He described to local media a conversation in 1988 they both had about the blind eye society viewed AIDS victims since they were often gay men or drug addicts.  

Parson’s quoted Dr. Acer once saying, “When it starts affecting grandmothers and younger people, then you'll see something done.” It is that quote that Parsons felt Dr. Acer may have selected the 6 carefully and infected them on purpose. 

Another theory states he may have had numbness in his fingers from his medication and wouldn't notice if he cut his fingers and they bled while working on his patients.  But again six infections would have been remarkable.

It’s also been suggested that he may not have infected any of them. CIGNA (Dr. Acer’s official referrer) questioned the CDC's investigation claiming all the victims did have alternative sources. Considering the smaller population of the Treasure Coast, it is not impossible the disease could have been spread amongst themselves. 

CBS performed a controversial 1991 60 Minutes investigation on this theory.  They came to the conclusion that the CDC overstated the reliability of the data indicating the strains of HIV in the victims were identical to Dr. Acer’s.  In that same investigation they had uncovered information indicating that, even though Bergalis had stated she was never sexually active, she had once been treated for another sexually transmitted disease prior to this incident. That same investigation uncovered similar information about the other 5 victims. There was a financial incentive offered to his infected patients, and it is thought this may have influenced how they have interviewed against him. The CDC dismissed CBS’s investigation as misleading.  

Eight hundred of Dr. Acer’s 1,900 patients were never found when the CDC attempted to contact them all in 1990. Of the 6 infected patients, only 2 are still alive including Lisa Shoemaker, who remains an outspoken AIDS activist.  

We will probably never understand what happened in that office.  Was it a sinister murder plot by a crazed dentist? Was this just a series of mishaps and accidents? Or was it a coincidence?  It will probably forever remain a medical mystery.

 


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