November 21, 2008

HIV–infected patient sues hospital after transplant

A University of Chicago Medical Center patient filed suit against the hospital and one of its surgeons Monday, charging medical negligence after receiving a kidney transplant in January 2007 that she later found infected her with HIV and Hepatitis C.

The patient claims the hospital had known that the organ donor had participated in “homosexual sexual activity within the past five years” but had withheld this information from her, according to Thomas Demetrio, the plaintiff’s attorney. The plaintiff filed suit anonymously.

Privacy laws prohibit the Medical Center from disclosing what it told its patients about the donor, and Medical Center officials declined to comment on the matter because of the pending lawsuit.

According to the Medical Center’s website, the University has successfully completed 2,500 kidney transplants.

The kidney tested negative for both HIV and Hepatitis C when it was screened and transplanted, according to Demetrio, but current medical tests cannot always detect diseases immediately after infection. In some cases, tests can come up clean several weeks after infection has occurred.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the plaintiff didn’t find out she had contracted the diseases until early this month. They report that she was brought to the hospital for testing after it was discovered that three other patients who received transplants from the same donor had contracted HIV.

Demetrio said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 1994 guidelines recommend, but do not require, “informed consent regarding the possibility of HIV transmission” from donors who are considered at risk of having HIV. The CDC also recommends that hospitals call recipients of high-risk organs back for screening three months after transplants are received.

“The CDC guidelines say that in the event of a lifesaving situation where the risk of death is greater than the risk of contracting a disease, then you do the transplant,” Demetrio said. However, he said the plaintiff was not in terminal condition at the time of the transplant, but was receiving dialysis treatment.

Although the CDC recommendations are not legally binding, Demetrio said that “the University of Chicago assumed a duty to inform its patients of the high risk nature of an organ donor” and that it had always been the University’s policy to do so.

Demetrio said that his client had already rejected two kidneys offered to her because of her concern over donor lifestyle. One of the candidates was a heavy drinker and frequented prostitutes, and the other was on parole for an unknown charge, according to Demetrio. The plaintiff told Demetrio that she would have rejected the infected kidney had she known of the donor’s risky behavior.

He added that although the nation faces a short supply of organ donors—perhaps explaining why the doctors elected to go ahead with the transplant, he said—it is a patient’s right to make decisions regarding his health. Given the same information, he said, two patients may decide differently on how they wish to proceed.

The incident has already affected hospital policies. According to Demetrio, Medical Center doctors not only have to inform their patients of the risks of specific donor’s organ transplants, but also have to document the notification and consent process.