Mass. Jury Hears Suit Against Doctor by Patient Misdiagnosed with HIV

December 7, 2007

A Massachusetts woman has sued a doctor who treated her after a test wrongly showed she was infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

Audrey Serrano says she still has not shaken off the impact of living for years convinced that the virus that causes AIDS was steadily wreaking havoc inside her body.

Serrano’s lawsuit against a doctor who treated her after she was misdiagnosed as HIV positive in 1994 went to trial this week. She says the powerful combination of drugs she took for almost nine years triggered a string of ailments, including depression, chronic fatigue, the loss of weight and appetite, and an inflammation of the intestine.

“Today, it’s still hard. One minute you think you have it, the next minute you don’t,” she said this week during a break in proceedings at Worcester Superior Court. “And your mind plays tricks on you, and you still live as if you have HIV, even though you don’t.”

Serrano, 45, is seeking unspecified damages in the lawsuit she filed in 2003. The original lawsuit named several medical providers, all but one of whom were later dropped from the case.

Serrano said she became suspicious of her HIV-positive status after obtaining her medical records in 2003 and noticing the word “negative” beside a long list of tests that were conducted to monitor her response to medication. She went for another HIV test at a different hospital. The results were negative. She then approached another doctor, who took her off HIV medications after a series of HIV tests also came in negative.

The divorced mother of a 17-year-old girl says she is now living off disability benefits while studying for an associate paralegal degree. She says she is also running a charity organization, Families Against Abuse, that supports people suffering from child abuse and neglect.

She says her medical ordeal began after an anonymous test at a clinic in Fitchburg showed that she was HIV positive. Serrano and her attorney, David Angueira, say they are unsure whether the initial test was a false positive, or if it was a record mix-up.

But Angueira says Serrano’s doctor put her on medication intended to contain the virus without conducting separate tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Serrano was referred to an HIV clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, where Dr. Kwan Lai — an infectious disease specialist — became her primary care provider and began supervising her treatment, the attorney said.

Angueira said Lai, the remaining defendant in Serrano’s case, repeatedly failed to order definitive tests even after efforts to monitor how Serrano was responding to treatment did not show the presence of HIV in her blood.

Lai, testifying in the case, said she had no reason to question the original diagnosis because Serrano convinced her she had the virus that causes AIDS.

“She convinced me that she was HIV (positive),” Lai said, saying Serrano told her that she had worked as a prostitute, her partner also had AIDS and that she had suffered three bouts of a type of pneumonia that was typically associated with those infected by the virus.

“I believed she had HIV from the detailed history we took” and the fact that her blood had abnormal amounts of cells used to fight infections, Lai said.

Lai acknowledged under cross examination that she never saw a document that proved conclusively that Serrano was HIV positive. Serrano refused to permit her to contact her former physician directly for more information and never signed a form that would allow other doctors to release medical records to her, the physician said.

Lai and her attorney, Joannie Gulliford Hoban, declined to comment outside the courtroom. The defense lawyer had said in her opening statements that the physician was not negligent and had provided standard care to the patient. The medical center has denied doing anything wrong.

The hearing is expected to conclude next week.

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