Husband, wife suspect clinic source of infection


For more than a year, Deborah Hilty kept asking herself what she did wrong.

She had hepatitis C and no clue why.

Every day the 58-year-old day care owner talked about it with her husband, Robert. Every day they were left with more questions than answers -- until last week.

Robert Hilty, 52, came home from work Feb. 27 and flipped on the television.

He saw a special news bulletin. Something about contaminated medicine vials and hepatitis and HIV. Then he saw the address, 700 Shadow Lane. He knew that address.

He rushed to the converted garage where his wife cared for special-needs children. Turn off the cartoons, he said, you have to see this.

In that moment, Deborah Hilty suddenly had the answer she had been wracking her brain over since January 2007.

"I thought, 'Oh my God. Somebody gave this to me,'" she said. "Here I am, for a year, thinking I did something."

Two days later, the couple filed a lawsuit against the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada and the doctors who own it, alleging she contracted the disease during her Oct. 20, 2006, colonoscopy.

An investigation by state and local health officials found nurse anesthetists at the center reused syringes on infected patients and contaminated single-use vials of medicine that were shared among multiple patients, spreading infection.

The Southern Nevada Health District has linked six hepatitis C cases to the clinic and has recommended 40,000 patients who were at the clinic between March 2004 and Jan. 11 get tested for HIV and hepatitis strains B and C.

Two other patients with hepatitis C, including one of the initial six, have filed lawsuits against the clinic, and several Las Vegas law offices said they are preparing lawsuits involving more than a dozen other patients who think they contracted hepatitis C, HIV or other diseases at the clinic.

Two lawyers said they have cases in which patients died from hepatitis C.

Before Deborah Hilty's diagnosis, she and her husband didn't worry much about death.

After 17 years of marriage they looked forward to retirement -- her from the day care business and him from a 30-year carpentry career -- and traveling the country in their fifth-wheel trailer.

That changed 13 months ago when a blood test turned up elevated liver enzymes. Her doctor confirmed she had hepatitis C.

She cried her eyes out on the drive home.

"It was the most horrible ride in my entire life," she said. "How do you go home and tell your husband you contracted a fatal disease, and you may have given it to him?"

Robert Hilty said he did not get tested because the chance of transmission was low but now is trying to get tested.

Deborah Hilty plans to get tested for HIV. If she tests positive, she will have to close the day care, where she watches nine children, most of them with autism, she said.

Her positive hepatitis C test came during a routine blood screening that she gets every six months to monitor a condition in which her pancreas secretes too much acid into her stomach, she said. She takes medication to control the condition, which also required at least two procedures at the endoscopy center in 2005 and 2006, she said.

She was diagnosed with hepatitis C three months after her last procedure there, she said.

"I know I couldn't have possibly gotten it anywhere else," she said.

But health officials might not ever know for sure where or when she contracted the disease, said Brian Labus, the health district's senior epidemiologist.

Patients with chronic hepatitis C do not show symptoms, making it all but impossible to narrow down the time period when they could have contracted the disease, he said.

But patients with acute hepatitis C show symptoms within about six months, which gives investigators a narrow time frame to focus on and find the source of the infection, he said.

That is how health investigators connected the recent outbreak to the endoscopy center, he said.

Health officials encourage people with the disease to look ahead, not back.

"For those people, at this point it doesn't matter where you got it," Labus said. "You have it, and you have to focus on protecting your health."

The Hiltys said they worry about how long she has until the disease takes its toll. Hepatitis C can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.

They worry that if she undergoes treatment, the fatigue, nausea and other side effects will prevent her from running her day care.

They worry about finding a doctor in Las Vegas they can trust.

"I'm not letting anybody touch her now," Robert Hilty said. "If I have to go out of town, I will. None of these whackos here are going to touch her."

For now they are taking it day by day, searching for answers and hoping their lawsuit holds the medical workers responsible while preventing something like this from happening again, they said.

"You swear when you enter the medical profession you do no harm," she said. "What happened to that?"

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at bhaynes@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0281.

 

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