She contracted HIV as a girl, from a man who repeatedly raped her. She developed full-blown AIDS at the age of 12. Her best friend, raped by the same man, shot herself in the head and died in her arms.
It was a story Cassey Weierbach, who has traveled the country as an AIDS activist, had told about herself many times before -- in churches, to youth groups, at medical conferences and on TV. This time, in April of last year, the 26-year-old Allentown resident was seated in a wheelchair before 150 students in a Lehigh University auditorium.
Cassey, a 1998 graduate of Freedom High School in Bethlehem Township, explained to the audience that a viral brain infection called progressive multifocal leucoencephalopathy, or PML, had crippled her. This, she said matter-of-factly, was the final stage of the disease.
"I'm on a timeline," she said. "I will not live to see my 27th birthday."
Cassey's story, however, was far from over. A church pastor would open a new chapter with a shocking accusation: that Cassey didn't really have AIDS.
"Our time would have been better spent helping [other] people," the Rev. Lois Randolph, then of Lower Saucon United Church of Christ in Hellertown, told The Morning Call two days after Cassey's Lehigh University speech. "She duped my church."
For years, Pastor Lois, as she is known, and other preachers, teachers and doctors from throughout the Lehigh Valley have come to Cassey's aid. Churchgoers and volunteers have held her hand when she was laid up in a hospital bed. They've cooked her meals and done her laundry. They've passed the plate for her on Sunday and paid her rent when it was overdue.
Wherever she has needed to go, they've taken her, to the grocery store, to the pharmacy, to doctor appointments. Countless doctor appointments. The medical work -- physicals,blood work and MRIs under Pennsylvania's Medicaid program -- is unending.
Now, Pastor Lois was accusing Cassey of a particularly cruel form of deception. And that assertion would soon force some of those who helped Cassey to make uncomfortable calculations about the limits of their own good will.
AIDS is the scourge of an era. More than a half-million Americans have died of the disease since its discovery in the early 1980s.
That a healthy individual might actually pretend to have such a terrible affliction is an idea that would never occur to most people. Nonetheless, at least two dozen fake AIDS cases have been reported in psychiatric journals and books.
The cases are attributed to factitious disorder, a condition in which people feign illness because they crave unnecessary medical attention. Extreme cases are said to be Munchausen syndrome. Unlike hypochondriacs, who believe they are sick, Munchausen patients know they are not.
Method actors of the most extreme variety, they are capable of throwing themselves completely, mercilessly into the role of victim. They've burned themselves with cigarettes to simulate skin lesions. They've injected themselves with feces to trigger infection. In one case, a woman reportedly went to more than 600 hospitals and underwent 42 operations, which left her abdomen crisscrossed with scars.
Doctors, often the only people who know a person's real condition, are effectively muzzled. Federal regulations, known best by the acronym HIPAA, have codified the sacrosanctity of medical privacy, giving Munchausen patients the perfect cover.
Cassey bristles at any suggestion that she does not have AIDS.
Rather, she says, she is the victim of a vengeful Pastor Lois, who was scandalized by Cassey's romantic involvement with a woman.
"It seems like she is going to make my life living hell," she said, referring to the pastor. "Do you hate me so much because I'm gay that you are willing to destroy my life?"
Pastor Lois, 54, responded to Cassey's recrimination:
"I believe God created us all to be loved and love one another. I can't believe God made a mistake. I recognize that there are some people who are homosexuals, and I accept it."
Doubts about Cassey
An Allentown woman's tragic account of rape and AIDS has evoked the sympathy and help of people in the Lehigh Valley for a decade. But her support crumbles after a pastor's shocking accusation.
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