Mary Fisher

Mary Fisher

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — A packed house at the Carriage House heard an inspirational message Thursday from international AIDS activist and breast-cancer survivor Mary Fisher.

Fisher, who is also an author and artist, called on more than 300 people at AtlantiCare’s annual Women’s Health Signature Event not to let fear stop them from doing good work and living healthy lives.

Fisher knows all about fear: She has lived with it for more than 20 years after being diagnosed with the AIDS virus — at a time when that was considered essentially a death sentence. She contracted HIV from her ex-husband, but the mother of two and former staff member to President Gerald Ford didn’t hide behind the wall of silence that surrounded AIDS at that time. Instead, Fisher drew national attention by going public with her story in a speech to the 1992 Republican National Convention.

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And she had a strong, if not partisan, political message in her local speech at an event that in its first nine years was called AtlantiCare’s Breast Health Signature Event.

Fisher called the current health care debate in Washington “a feast of fear: fear that we’ll have a national system of health care, and fear that we won’t; fear that the promised land will be snatched from us just as we arrive, and fear that we are on the path to rack and ruin. If the average American experiences confusion and anger, both are rooted in fear.”

She told the crowd about meeting Secret Service agents who protected Ford, who was the target of a 1975 assassination attempt. One agent told her how he dealt with fear, saying, “It’s just fear.” The lesson Fisher took from that was to accept her fears as real and deal with them.

“Fear? Sure,” she said, quoting from a section of her second memoir, “Messenger: A Self Portrait,” published last year. “Paralysis? Absolutely not.”

The agent who threw himself between the gun and the president “showed me that courage is not the absence of fear but the willingness to do the right thing even though we’re terrified.”

But Fisher didn’t just ask the audience, which was mainly other women, to be brave. She also urged them to be smart, by taking care of their own health even when they’re inclined to put their families first and not worry about themselves.

“Studies tell us that what keeps women from routine exams is a feeling of selfishness: We see it as spending time and money on ourselves, and we don’t think we deserve it,” Fisher said. “Self-care is seen as selfish. We need to help each other over this kind of warped sense of sacrifice.”

Fisher also urged the crowd to “consider service” as a great way to improve their own lives.

Just before she got a standing ovation, she left the crowd this last thought: “If you feel a weariness with your life, the cure is within your reach: look to those who need your service, and serve them. Instantly, you will have a reason for your being.”

This year’s main honoree was Ann Szapor, of Egg Harbor Township, AtlantiCare’s assistant vice president for nursing.

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More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.

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