As Patty Aspinwall listened to Henry Chanin explain to a Clark County jury how “deeply anxious” he felt about the possibility of infecting his wife and others with hepatitis, she thought about how she cooks at home.
She wears surgical gloves.
“I know there’s almost no chance that I could ever spread hepatitis while I’m cooking,” Aspinwall said Tuesday as she waited for Chanin’s trial to resume against two drug companies, Teva Parenteral Medicine and Baxter Healthcare Services. “But wearing gloves makes me more mindful that I always have to be careful. The last thing I want to do is make my family sick.”
For the past two weeks, Aspinwall, who contracted hepatitis after a 2007 procedure at Dr. Dipak Desai’s Shadow Lane clinic, has made her way to the first civil trial stemming from the Las Vegas hepatitis C outbreak.
“When something like this happens to you, you want to understand how it could have happened,” she said as she sat outside the courtroom. “You want to know why it happened, and you also want to give moral support to people who are going through the same kind of thing you are.”
Aspinwall, 56, is relaying what she learns at the trial to HONOReform, a patient advocacy group founded in Nebraska that is trying to wipe out hepatitis C outbreaks in the United States. With well over 100,000 Americans placed in direct risk of contracting hepatitis, HIV and other blood-borne diseases through more than 35 known outbreaks over the past decade, Aspinwall said it is clear that people can’t trust the medical profession alone to do the right thing.
“We have to get people asking their doctors if they’re reusing syringes and medication,” she said. “It’s awkward, but it can mean your life.”
When the emotional Chanin, 62, testified that he and his wife no longer have sexual relations because he fears infecting her with the virus, Aspinwall wondered how many relationships will be destroyed because of the outbreak.
“This disease changes your relationship,” she said, stressing that sexual intimacy is an important part of any marriage and that many infected people are afraid to rely on condoms to keep their partners safe. “When you’re married, you’re not just best friends, you’re also lovers. There’s now always a void in your life. That won’t be easy for many marriages.”
Chanin, headmaster of The Meadows School, was infected with hepatitis C during a June 2006 colonoscopy at the Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center, one of the Desai clinics linked to the outbreak.
Hundreds said they were infected, and thousands, including Chanin and his wife, Lorraine, have sued.
In the past month, medical defendants in Chanin’s case, including Dr. Rajat Sood, settled their part of the lawsuit.
Two years ago, local health officials revealed that authorities investigating a cluster of hepatitis C cases had observed nurses at a Desai clinic reusing syringes in a manner that contaminated vials of the anesthetic medication propofol and, they believe, infected patients with the virus, which attacks the liver.
According to clinic staffers interviewed by city investigators, this practice was done at the direction of Desai and other administrators to save money.
The Chanins’ lawsuit claims the two drug companies made and sold vials of propofol that were much larger than needed for colonoscopies, which tempted medical workers to reuse vials among patients instead of throwing away unused anesthetic.
“What really depresses me the more I learn about what happened,” Aspinwall said, “is that it appears money is at the heart of everything, not patients. I honestly used to think doctors and pharmaceutical firms thought about patients first. Not anymore. I’ve only got one doctor now that I trust.”
The drugmakers have said their labels and packages warn against reusing vials of propofol among multiple patients. Aspinwall wonders, however, why the companies would sell only 50-milliliter vials of the single-use medication when only 10 milliliters is usually needed for colonoscopies, which take about 15 minutes.
At the trial, Robert Eglet, an attorney for the Chanins, noted that Teva used to make 10-milliliter vials but stopped because larger vials are cheaper to make.
“They had to know these colonoscopy clinics weren’t going to throw away that much medication after each procedure,” Aspinwall said. “That becomes a waste of money, and, it turns out, that was more important to doctors and nurses than people.”
Aspinwall relies on anti-depressant medication and sessions with a therapist to keep from spiraling into a deep depression. For months her sleep was unsettled, she said, because she saw the man she had come to believe was the embodiment of evil, Dr. Dipak Desai, chasing her.
It was Desai who scheduled Aspinwall for a colonoscopy at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada on Shadow Lane after she complained of diarrhea. About a month after her colonoscopy, Aspinwall felt nauseated. In the weeks that followed, she turned yellow.
Finally, she went to the MountainView Hospital emergency room and found that she had hepatitis C.
Seven cases, including Aspinwall’s, were genetically linked to procedures that took place on Sept. 21, 2007, at the Shadow Lane clinic.
Though Aspinwall is easily fatigued and often nauseated, her doctor advised her not to get the taxing treatment for the virus, which has only a 40 percent success rate.
Aspinwall lost her job in telecommunications because she could no longer focus on her work.
When Chanin said on the witness stand that his continuing blood tests for hepatitis C are like playing Russian roulette, Aspinwall sat in the courtroom and nodded. And she felt sick to her stomach.
“I understood where he was coming from,” she said. “One day I’ll have my day in court and talk about how I used to dream about retiring to Hawaii with my husband and how we were going to travel. We had fun planning it.
“Now I don’t dream about the future. I hold my breath on every test. I don’t feel now that I have any control over the future at all.”
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@
reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.