‘It Was So Unnecessary’ : S.F. Nun Succumbs After Contracting AIDs From a Blood Transfusion

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Times Staff Writer

A 66-year-old Roman Catholic nun, whom her pastor called “the last person anyone would think would get this disease,” has died of AIDS after a blood transfusion.

Sister Romana Marie Ryan, a nun for 47 years and a teacher at St. Philip’s School here for 14 years, died last Wednesday after contracting infections and a type of pneumonia linked to acquired immune deficiency syndrome, the disease that is usually transmitted sexually and is generally associated with homosexual men.

She received the transfusion during surgery for a broken hip. She sustained the injury in a fall while taking her kindergarten class on a field trip to downtown San Francisco in 1983.


Father Thomas F. Regan, pastor at St. Philip’s Church, said Sister Romana, whom he described as being “magically gifted” in teaching young children, had asked that details of her illness not be released while she was living.

Letters to Parents

Word of the death came Tuesday, when Regan sent letters to parents of children who attend the highly regarded school, assuring them that the children could not have contracted the disease.

“Naturally, it was a sledgehammer blow,” Regan said. “A 66-year-old celibate nun--she’s the last person anyone would think would get this kind of disease.”

He added, however, that she accepted her fate.

“In our business, you understand death. You understand you’re only going to be here for a few years.”

The nun’s case of AIDS was the 16th reported in the Bay Area that was related to a blood transfusion. Nationally, 100 AIDS cases have been linked to transfusions. To date, 444 people have died of AIDS in San Francisco, and there have been 930 reported cases here.

The large number of deaths here has forced government and health officials to take extraordinary steps, from directing owners of gay bathhouses to ensure that patrons engage only in “safe sex,” to efforts by blood banks to screen out high-risk donors.


However, the efforts by Irwin Memorial Blood Bank, which provided the blood used in the operation on Sister Romana, have not been completely successful.

Came as a Shock

While the AIDS epidemic is particularly acute here, the death of such an unlikely victim came as a shock.

“That’s what’s so scary--a blood transfusion,” said Cathy Madsen, whose 4-year-old daughter was a student of Sister Romana.

“It was so unnecessary,” parent Vicki Mullins said of the death. “I feel so empty. It’s so much worse knowing that she didn’t have to die.”

Sister Romana last taught in December, when she directed her class in a Christmas play.

“She gave her last bit of strength to the school,” Mullins said. Like other parents interviewed outside the school in the fashionable Noe Valley section of San Francisco, Mullins called Sister Romana, “wonderful, very dedicated.”

It was, she said, her 4-year-old son’s first contact with death.

“He cried,” she said.

Parents said if the need for a blood transfusion arises, they would only accept one from family members or close friends, an increasingly common occurrence here.


Provided Blood

Sylvia Ramirez, spokeswoman for Irwin Memorial Blood Bank, which provided the blood used in Sister Romana’s operation, said 500 people a month provide blood to be used specifically for a friend or relative, while a few years ago, before the AIDS scare, such donations were relatively rare.

The blood bank started its screening program in 1982, asking potential donors to fill out questionnaires on health and personal history. As the disease increased, the blood bank started giving hepatitis tests in trying to isolate and turn away high-risk donors.

The blood bank considers high-risk donors to include homosexual men or men who have had sexual contact with other men since 1978, anyone who immigrated from Haiti or Central Africa since 1978, anyone who has had sexual relations with any of those groups and drug abusers.

However, the testing is not foolproof, Ramirez said, pointing out that Sister Romana received blood in August, 1983, after the screening began.

Additionally, testing does not always turn up carriers. Sister Romana received blood from three donors. All three were contacted, but none shows signs of the disease, Ramirez said.

Severe Symptoms

Sister Romana became ill in September, and initially was diagnosed as having anemia, said her physician, Dr. Nicholas Burik. She soon started showing severe symptoms associated with AIDS.


Regan said if any good could come from her death, he hoped that there would be increased research to halt the spread of AIDS and quoted the nun as saying:

“I pray daily for the person whose blood I received and for all other victims of this disease. I know what they are suffering. I am offering what is happening to me so that the doctors will find a cure for the disease.”