'They've almost given me a death sentence'

<b>CLARIFICATION, 3/4/08</b> - A story in Sunday's Review-Journal should have said that Michael Washington, whose case of hepatitis C has been traced to the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, suffers from diabetes.

Michael Washington doesn't know what the rest of his life holds for him. But the 67-year-old knows how he doesn't want his life to end.

"I don't want to die of cancer. I don't want to die of HIV," he said on Saturday in his home in Sun City Anthem. "I'd rather pass away of old age."

Washington is one of six people so far who have had their lives irreversibly changed after being diagnosed with hepatitis C, a deadly and debilitating disease.

Authorities say medical procedures at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada have placed 40,000 people at risk for hepatitis B, C and HIV, and countless others indirectly at risk. The city of Las Vegas revoked the clinic's business license on Friday.

Southern Nevadans have overwhelmed labs, seeking blood tests. Results will be pouring in this week.

For those who don't test positive, the ordeal will have been an inconvenience. For those who have been infected, Washington's experience shows it will be life-altering.

"Maybe it's wrong on my part, but I feel like they've almost given me a death sentence," the 22-year Air Force veteran and retiree said.

Washington acknowledges that he probably will never be a candidate to receive a new liver. Liver transplants are one of the few options for combating the disease.

He has received no treatment for hepatitis C because his doctors say the treatment would only make him sicker.

He's wondering what's next.

"I told my wife, 'I hope that you don't panic and leave, and stay with me,'" Washington said as he looked at his wife of 29 years, Josephine, who is a registered nurse.

"After all these years?" she said, laughing. "That's ludicrous."

Washington said health district officials told him he was the first person to contract hepatitis C while undergoing a colonoscopy at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.

The July 25 procedure went well as far as he knew. He didn't notice any unusual practices. Records show Dr. Dipak Desai, along with a registered nurse and a nurse anesthetist, were in the room with Washington during the procedure.

On his next visit to the center, a few weeks later, Washington said a doctor told him he had contracted hepatitis, and that he had been infected with the blood-borne illness during his July 25 visit. Washington said the doctor told him he didn't know how he could have been infected, because the clinic passed health inspections.

Subsequent tests confirmed he had hepatitis C, which can cause chronic liver disease and lead to death.

"I really started kind of panicking a bit," Washington said. "I thought, 'This has really put my life in danger here.'"

His weight plummeted as symptoms surfaced. It was too painful to eat and he was weak.

"We would go to the doctor on a Monday, and by Friday he would have lost another three pounds," Josephine Washington said.

Washington now weighs 211 pounds, down from his normal weight of 256 pounds.

"My body had to get used to being so weak," he said.

He's reminded of the disease three times a day, when he injects himself with insulin and pricks his finger to monitor his blood sugar.

He must be careful that his blood doesn't come in contact with his wife. He disposes of all needles and tissues he uses in an empty coffee can. He takes a full can to a special facility to have the contents destroyed.

Washington used to be a "wonderful" cook, his wife said, but he can no longer risk being cut by a knife. So she cooks dinner now.

Washington wasn't aware that other Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada patients had been infected with hepatitis C until a visit to the clinic just before Thanksgiving. He said during that visit a doctor told him five others had contracted the disease.

It wasn't until health officials went public with their concerns about the clinic last week that he realized just how severe the situation is.

"We're both upset about it," Washington said. "But right now I'm trying to cope with it on my own. And my wife is trying to help me through it. I'm leaning on her and she's leaning on me."

Washington has hired a lawyer, Ed Bernstein, to seek compensation for medical bills and future costs the disease may bring. Bernstein was present at a Review-Journal interview with Washington on Saturday.

The mental anguish -- wondering whether his life may be stopped short -- might prompt Washington to see a psychologist or psychiatrist.

"You work most of your life and then you retire," he said. "You go in for a routine medical procedure that's good -- it's a fine procedure. But here you have a clinic that's doing things they shouldn't be doing, and injuring people.

"It's not fair, I don't think. They shouldn't get away with it. It's almost like they committed a crime."

Contact reporter Lawrence Mower at lmower@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0440.