‘I still miss my brother a whole lot, and Mom and Dad are still fighting for a cure for AIDS.’


In 1983, 3-year-old Sammy Kushnick became one of the first children to die of AIDS, the fatal disease that by now has claimed the lives of nearly 600 other youngsters.

But Sammy, who got AIDS from a blood transfusion he received as a premature baby, is more than a statistic. His short life--and death--made a difference because he left behind a family determined to see that a cure for AIDS is found, that the blood supply is made safe, and that others won’t have to cope with the ostracism and misinformation the Kushnick family encountered.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” said Jerry Kushnick, Sammy’s father, tears welling up. But Kushnick, an attorney, and his wife of nine years, Helen, who together run a successful entertainment agency in West Hollywood, have found strengths they never knew they had, despite having to battle serious illnesses themselves since Sammy’s death.


The entire family--including Sammy’s twin sister, Sara, now 7 1/2-- have become activists in the battle against acquired immune deficiency syndrome. “We’ve changed lives,” they say, in a tone tinged more with surprise than bragging.

They founded the Samuel Jared Kushnick Pediatric Immunology Research Center at Chaim-Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, Israel.

They have helped other families struggling to cope with similar losses, and worked for changes in blood bank procedures, education programs, and guidelines for school policy toward children with AIDS.

Helen Kushnick lectures throughout the country, testifies at government hearings, and serves on the board of directors of the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

But they say much is still needed: a central figure, such as the surgeon general, to pull together the fragmented work of the myriad agencies that deal with AIDS, a federal anti-discrimination law for AIDS victims, a test specific to all strains of the AIDS virus, a public health plan to deal with the problem, and, perhaps, mandatory testing.

The Kushnicks recently were honored at a special AIDS benefit at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at which Sara read aloud a letter she had dictated for a book for families that have lost children:

“Now I have a perfect life and, you know,

everything is fine,” she read. “I still miss my brother a whole lot, and Mom and Dad are still fighting for a cure for AIDS.”

However, she told her mother not long ago, “Things get harder for me each year because I understand more.”

Her parents said their daughter is “absolutely super and growing up normally. . . . We know she’s fine, but, still, if she gets a fever. . . . “

Sara’s twin contracted AIDS from one of 20 blood transfusions he received from 13 different donors as a premature baby at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Although the Los Angeles County Health Department told The Times four years ago that the only donor who fell into a high-risk category was well, the Kushnicks said they have since learned that the man, a homosexual, had been hospitalized with pneumonia associated with AIDS a year before Sammy died, that he tried to commit suicide upon learning that his blood had caused the child’s death, and that he himself died in 1984.

(The Kushnicks sued both Cedars and the pediatricians who treated Sammy. The suit against the hospital was thrown out by an appeals court; the suit against the physicians is still pending).

Although Sara was thriving and had not received blood from the same donor, AIDS hysteria resulted in her ouster from Temple Emanuel’s nursery school. She was welcomed at Temple Beth Am in West Los Angeles and is now in the second grade at a public school in Beverly Hills.

“I think the pendulum is swinging back to center,” says Helen Kushnick of public attitudes toward AIDS here, adding that educating minority communities about the disease is still a problem.

Sammy was repeatedly misdiagnosed when he became ill, and when he died--before pediatric AIDS was even considered a disease--the family was told that his death would not be counted as an AIDS fatality because he was under 5 years of age.

But in a federal report on a workshop on children with AIDS last year Surgeon General C. Everett Koop referred to that error and added: “We hope that Mrs. Kushnick and her family realize how much their courage and their work has made Samuel’s life and struggle count very much indeed.”