A U.S. Navy veteran had no idea he was living with the virus that causes AIDS for more than two decades, because government health care workers never informed him of his positive test result in the mid-1990s, he says.
In a federal lawsuit filed this week, the South Carolina man says he ended up with “full-blown AIDS” because he never received treatment after being kept in the dark.
“The treatment he's getting now is effective, but he’s had essentially 25 years of wear and tear for having no treatment," said his lawyer, Chad McGowan. Conditions related to his unknown HIV status included an infection of his brain tissue, McGowan said.
“He feels extremely guilty about the girlfriends he's had over the last 25 years because he didn’t know,” he said.
The HIV test was done in November 1995 as part of standard lab testing at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Columbia, South Carolina, the lawsuit states.
The V.A. “does not typically comment on pending litigation," agency spokeswoman Marlous Black said in an email.
The veteran, identified in the lawsuit as John Doe to protect his privacy, was hurt in a 1976 ship wreck while serving in the Navy, the lawsuit states.
He was aboard a destroyer that collided with an aircraft carrier off the coast of Scotland, McGowan said. The servicemen on the destroyer were told to abandon ship. He and others were rescued from the North Sea.
McGowan said the ordeal led to his client developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was classified as disabled due to his physical and mental injuries, and began being treated by the Veterans Affairs Department.
A doctor at the V.A.'s Columbia medical center ordered the lab work that included the HIV test in November 1995. Guidelines require that patients be informed of any positive test result, and that treatments begin. “In clear contravention of the standard of care, Mr. Doe was not informed of the positive HIV test until decades later," the lawsuit states.
In 2014, a nurse practitioner at the Columbia facility wrote a memo noting the 1995 lab tests, according to medical records included in the complaint. But the information still wasn't conveyed to the veteran, the complaint states.
In 2015, the veteran saw another doctor through the V.A. who wrote in a medical record that he came across the 1995 lab results showing the positive HIV test. The doctor asked him who his infectious disease doctor was, and the veteran said he didn't have one. That doctor also asked the veteran if he knew he was HIV positive, and he responded that he was never told about any positive test.
That doctor “does not diagnose Mr. Doe with HIV, nor does he even add the positive HIV test to Mr. Doe’s problem list or medical history in his medical chart to flag the positive HIV test for subsequent providers," the complaint states.
It wasn't until September 2018 when the veteran had an emergency visit to a non-V.A. hospital — Maimonides Medical Center in New York City — that he received a definitive diagnosis and began treatment for HIV/AIDS. At that point, he responded well to antiretroviral therapy, but “the virus had already progressed to full-blown AIDS," the complaint states.
He “needlessly suffered for decades with co-existing conditions common in HIV infected persons, including lymphadenopathy, neurotoxoplasmosis, muscle aches and joint pain," the complaint states.
“Had Defendants acted within the standard of care, Mr. Doe would not have suffered the losses he has suffered, and will continue to suffer in the future, and more likely than not, he would not have developed AIDS."
Some people who are HIV-positive can live for several years without developing symptoms, but others develop symptoms much more quickly, experts say.
“Some people progress really fast and some don’t progress at all,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, director of the Center for AIDS Research at Emory University in Atlanta.
The negligence alleged in this lawsuit appears to be highly unusual.
“I can’t think of any specific situation where someone’s test result was delayed in that way,” said lawyer Scott Schoettes, the HIV project director at Lambda Legal, which is involved in HIV-related court cases around the nation. Schoettes is not involved in the South Carolina case.
McGowan said he's advocated for other V.A. patients who weren't informed in a timely manner after biopsies found evidence of disease, “but nothing where there's a 25-year delay."
“In my experience working with patients like Mr. Doe, the V.A. has so many providers that come and go, that they try to have some continuity of care, but stuff falls through the cracks all time," he said. “Communication issues, I believe. Sort of like it gets pushed down in the file and nobody looks.”