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Video: Mary Fisher reflects on ‘Whisper of AIDS’ speech

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TODAY books
updated 1/10/2013 4:55:21 PM ET 2013-01-10T21:55:21

Best known for her moving speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention in which she disclosed her status as married mother who had contracted AIDS, Mary Fisher has since devoted herself to advocacy and awareness. In “Messenger,” Fisher recounts the incredible story of her life and her determination to never be a victim. Here's an excerpt.

Prologue: Waking Up to Pain

I surfaced, coming up from somewhere deep like a cave or a well or a red-rock canyon. There were lights; even with my eyes closed, I felt them. I heard metal on metal, then voices. Someone walked nearby in squeaky shoes.

I had not yet opened my eyes when I tried to adjust my legs. I moved, barely—but enough to set off fireworks in my chest. I’d known pain before, but this was something of another magnitude, a different species. Pure, stunning, undiluted agony gripped me, sank barbed claws into my flesh, and ripped at me. This was you-have-no-control pain, don’t-move pain, don’t-breathe pain, you-can’t-even-think pain. Maybe prayer would help, or maybe profanity, but even speech was unthinkable. It required movement. And movement meant excruciating, staggering torture.

I was still coming to grips with this pain when a voice asked about morphine. I was conscious enough to know that I wanted to scream, “Yes!” But moving or speaking was not an option. I tried breathing instead: gentle, shallow breaths. Breathe. A different voice said, “It’s in the tube . . . It’ll work in a minute.” Breathe.

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What was this new agony? Surely it wasn’t AIDS. That was a long-ago nightmare—it had been July 1991 when they said I had AIDS. The thing about AIDS is that it doesn’t rip your chest out and leave hooks tugging at your bloody muscle. It wastes you. It takes away your immunity so you suffer more slowly, gradually stumbling from colds to pneumonia, from scabs to cancer. It drains you and makes you hate your body. It will even kill you. But it doesn’t do what was happening to me now.

No, this wasn’t AIDS. This was something else. I knew this was something else.

And I was right. This was January 2012, and I was emerging from surgery. I was back in the System, a body on a gurney, a patient defined by numbers on a clipboard. I was a dot on the nurse’s chart, an X over some hours on a calendar page hung outside Operating Room Two. And yet I was a special case. Everyone would be careful around my blood. Everyone knew that this new misery was not my first terminal disease.

Video: From the Archives:  Mary Fisher's 'Whisper of AIDS' speech (on this page)

I took a gulp of pain and remembered: I was emerging from a mastectomy. I’d never done this before. In six days and a few unimportant hours, I’d gone from Life is good and getting better to You’ve just had a bilateral mastectomy with node dissection.

Greenleaf Book Group Press

I think it was the brilliant writer and historian Garry Wills who once noted, “The problem with words is, they have meaning.” The System knows this, and so it promotes words carefully. When you contract what finally comes to be called “AIDS,” they tell you that you have “tested positive for HIV.” In 1991, when everyone with that diagnosis was soon leaning on death’s door, it seemed better to be HIV-positive than to have AIDS. Healing by rhetoric, I suppose.

Now it seemed somehow important to focus on that word: mastectomy. It surely sounded better than surviving an amputation. In fact, the doctors had cut off whatever skin and muscle they could not cut out, leaving me with shards of flesh and pierced by drainage tubes, trying to breathe, waiting for the arrival of my new best friend, morphine. By any reasonable definition, this was an amputation.

Either way, it all came back to that little word slipped into the report sent to me, at my request, a mere six days back—and even as a harmless word, it’s hard to take: cancer.

Excerpted from MESSENGER: A SELF PORTRAIT by Mary Fisher. Copyright (c) 2012 by Mary Fisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Greenleaf Book Group Press.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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