Bret Watson
November 08, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Lately, actress Gloria Reuben has been startled by strangers who blurt out, ”Are you going to die?” My God, I hope not! she thinks. What do you know that I don’t? Then, of course, she realizes that these fans are asking about her ER character, Jeanie Boulet, who learned this season that she is HIV-positive. ”Unfortunately,” says Reuben, ”that’s the first conclusion that people jump to: She’s going to die.”

Like so many people infected with the virus that leads to AIDS, Jeanie will go on living, and working, for quite some time — something that makes her unique in the annals of prime time. Nighttime dramas have typically and swiftly ushered characters from test results to deathbed, often as an implied punishment for a profligate life; witness Dr. Caldwell (Mark Harmon) on St. Elsewhere in 1986, and, last season, Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci) on Murder One. ”Until now, TV’s AIDS story lines have been mostly about somebody wasting away,” says ER coexecutive producer Carol Flint. ”That’s not what we wanted. And it’s turned out that our intentions are supported by what’s going on right now in HIV treatment.”

Advertisers and viewers are providing support too: ER remains the top-rated prime-time show, and NBC and Warner Bros. (which produces the show) say they’ve received no complaints regarding this HIV-positive physician assistant who not only works in an emergency room but has tried to keep her condition secret from doctors and patients. With Jeanie, whose soon-to-be ex-husband, Al, contracted the disease through extramarital activity, the producers had a character who would not be stricken ”out of the blue,” as Flint puts it. It also conveniently let Jeanie contract HIV without any behavior that viewers might frown upon.

AIDS activists and health-care workers have been watching Jeanie’s plight closely. ”We haven’t seen her working this out with her supervising physician, in terms of what she should or should not do,” cautions Sherri McNeeley, president of the American Academy of Physician Assistants. But McNeeley and other observers are glad to see Jeanie remaining in the ER, especially since studies indicate that no patients have contracted HIV from health-care workers in hospitals, even from HIV-positive surgeons. Though there is currently no national hospital policy, the general consensus is that HIV-positive health-care workers should observe existing universal precautions and avoid risky procedures — which is why Reuben’s character recently excused herself from a patient who had glass shards protruding from his chest.

”The biggest misconception the public has is that HIV-positive health-care workers should not take care of patients,” says Jocelyn White, president of the San Francisco-based Gay and Lesbian Medical Association. ”We’re pleased with the variety of responses Jeanie is receiving [on the show]. It accurately reflects the challenges these workers face.”

More important, ER‘s intention is to show Jeanie living a meaningful and productive life. HIV, says Flint, ”will be part of who Jeanie is, but it won’t always be in the forefront. We have humorous story lines and good times for her coming up. She finds a way to live with it.”

That comes as something of a relief to Reuben, 32, a native Canadian who became an ER regular only last season. When she learned what was in store for Jeanie, Reuben says, ”I was afraid of having to go to those dark places.” Then again, dark places are sometimes where Emmys can be found.

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