As Terry Hedgepeth walked the streets of the District in October 2002, the 42-year-old prayed for a bullet. The D.C. sniper was terrifying the area with random shootings. And Hedgepeth hoped to become part of the carnage. He wanted to die.
By then, it had been two years since Hedgepeth got what he thought was a death sentence anyway. In late 2000, he had dropped his girlfriend off near Georgetown University Hospital, where she frequently had errands to run. They’d been living together in Capitol Hill for about a year, after a whirlwind romance that began when they met at a party. Hedgepeth often drove his lady to Georgetown, but she was always a little vague on why. This time, he managed to find a parking spot, and followed her into a building. He didn’t see her, but he looked around: He was in a clinic, with lots of pamphlets. They were all about sexually transmitted diseases. His stomach fell.
When his girlfriend emerged from a back room, he confronted her. “She tried to deny everything at first,” Hedgepeth says. When they got home, he kept asking about the clinic, and she finally told him what was going on: “I found out that she had been HIV-positive for, like, eight years.”
Hedgepeth went into shock. He figured he was screwed. “You sleep with a person that has HIV, and then you have it,” he thought. Just to be sure, he wanted to get an AIDS test.
He’d heard of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, so on Dec. 13, 2000, he went to get checked out. Eventually, Dr. Mary Fanning came in with bad news: His results were positive. The trauma of the last few months caught up with him, and he broke down—and shortly afterwards, wound up in a psychiatric ward.
Once he was out, Whitman-Walker took charge of his treatment. About every three months, the clinic’s staff would test his blood. Medically, he was doing remarkably well: No signs of infection.
But outside the clinic, his life was falling apart. He broke up with his girlfriend and moved out. Ashamed of what his family would think, he’d cut off all ties with them—so he had nowhere to stay. He moved into a house Whitman-Walker maintained for homeless patients, with three HIV-positive roommates; he started sleeping with one, a woman he found attractive, figuring he was already positive.
Hedgepeth watched friends he’d met through the clinic get skinny and sick. Though his blood still showed no signs of infection, he was sure he was losing weight and getting weak. His roommate moved to Phoenix, leaving him alone again. Depressed, he wound up back in the psych ward, where doctors put him on Zoloft, Ambien, Trazodone and Wellbutrin. He rarely worked, drifting in and out of housing. Though he’d “dabbled” in cocaine in the past, he started using it more intensely. “That was my way to go out,” he says. All he wanted was to die of something—anything—besides AIDS, so his family wouldn’t know he was infected.
As it turned out, though, he wasn’t.
For four years, Hedgepeth had been showing up at Whitman-Walker regularly, but he was never sick enough to go on any HIV medication. “Some people, it takes a little longer,” he says the staff told him. Eventually, a friend suggested he forego conventional treatment and try holistic medicine. So he visited the Abundant Life Clinic in Southeast, where doctors did a routine blood test—and found he didn’t have HIV.
“He sat there in disbelief for a minute or two and then he cried,” Abundant Life’s Dr. Abdul Muhammad would later testify. “And you could see just the pain and just the relief that came. And I teared up, myself. Because it is like a man being released from prison, being exonerated—because that’s what the diagnosis of HIV is like. It is like a sentence that locks you into a certain mentality, a certain status. And he was just freed.”
Another test at Johns Hopkins University Hospital confirmed Hedgepeth was negative. So he sued Whitman-Walker Clinic in 2005, seeking $20 million in damages. “Plaintiff has suffered damages which include, but are not limited to, severe emotional distress and anxiety, physical damages including loss of weight, loss of contact with friends and family, commitment to psychiatric facilities, severe and persistent depression and suicidal ideation, past present and future lost earnings, damage to his reputation, and the loss of nearly four years of normal life,” his lawyer, Jonathan Dailey, wrote in the complaint.
What had happened, according to court documents, was a perfect storm of medical errors. There are usually two tests for HIV: the Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA), and the Western Blot. After a positive ELISA, the Western Blot is taken to confirm. But before Hedgpeth had his blood drawn, his chart had been labeled HIV-positive.
“Relying at least in part on [Hedgepeth’s] self-report, the intake worker made a notation in his file that he was HIV-positive,” court documents say. “The test administered...was ‘non-reactive,’ meaning [Hedgepeth] was not HIV-positive. [Whitman-Walker Clinic] admits that because of an erroneous interpretation of the negative test report, a ‘client lab results’ form showed [him] as testing positive for HIV.” A lab technician had entered the wrong result onto the summary page in Hedgepeth’s chart. Fanning, court records say, had the negative lab results, but still told Hedgepeth he was positive—noting that he was asymptomatic with a “normal” viral load. The clinic also completed a form saying Hedgepeth was eligible for the Ryan White program, which provides money for HIV treatment, and another that would make public funding available for medication. That form states Hedgepeth had a viral load increase of 30 percent or greater within the previous year, that he required a protease inhibitor, and that he was taking two HIV drugs—Combivir and Crixivan. None of which was true.
Hedgepeth thought he had an airtight medical negligence suit. In fact, his case was tossed out of D.C. Superior Court last year. Judge Robert E. Morin ruled, and a three-judge Court of Appeals panel also found, that Hedgepeth can’t sue Whitman-Walker, because he wasn’t physically harmed. The ruling hinged on a 1990 decision that patients can only sue for malpractice if they’re in a “zone of danger.” If Hedgepeth had taken HIV medication, the courts said, he could have sued—because then he could have proven harm.
Of course, he never had to take any medication, because he never had HIV. Hedgepeth could still win; last month, the Court of Appeals held an en banc hearing before the full court, which could lead the “zone of danger” precedent to be overturned. Dailey says he’s “100 percent” confident they’ll win.
Whitman-Walker spokesman Chip Lewis says he can’t discuss the case while it’s in court. But in its filings, the clinic says the saga isn’t all its fault. It can’t take responsibility for the mistakes of others, or for Hedgepeth’s breakdown: “Plaintiffs claimed losses, damages, or injuries, if any, were caused or contributed to by persons, conditions or events unrelated to and/or not under the control of [the clinic] and for which [Whitman-Walker] is not responsible.” Besides, Lewis says, it can’t happen again: “Whitman-Walker Clinic is committed to providing our patients with accurate and timely diagnosis and treatment. Our health center team works each and every day to ensure that patients receive high quality, affirming care. Since this incident 10 years ago, we have used advances in medical technology, including HIV testing, to improve the quality of care we provide to our patients.”
Meanwhile, Hedgepeth says he’s not angry about what happened to him—just confused. And, he says, the lawsuit isn’t about the money—it’s about righting a wrong. “I can’t figure out why it happened,” he says. “I can’t figure out why they treated me that way.”
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