A 16-year-old Towson girl, fresh from her high school prom and a weekend at the beach two years ago, came home to the horrifying news that she had tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS.
"She immediately fell into this blob of emotional jelly," her father recalled last week. "She just let out this shriek. . . . I'll never forget the look of that."
Two months later, after weeks of fear, anguish and repeated testing, the family learned that their daughter did not have the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) after all. The error apparently was the result of a mislabeled blood sample.
On Wednesday, the girl and her family sued St. Joseph Hospital in Towson, charging negligence in the handling of the blood sample after it was drawn, or in the supervision of the outside laboratory that performed the test.
The suit claims that the error caused the family weeks of emotional suffering and led the daughter to contemplate suicide.
Lori Vidil, the hospital's public relations director, said St. Joseph officials believe the mislabeling occurred at an out-of-state laboratory, which she did not identify.
"Following this incident, we re-evaluated our internal policies and we feel these procedures were followed properly," she said. "However, we are no longer sending [HIV tests] to the lab we had been sending them to."
She said the hospital hasn't taken legal action against the laboratory. She declined further comment on the suit until the hospital's attorneys review it.
By state law, legal actions involving medical claims are filed with the Health Claims Arbitration Office, without specifying the amount of damages sought. A panel hears the case and can award damages, but either side can appeal the finding to the Circuit Court for trial.
The family's attorney, Marvin Ellin, said that even though his clients have tested negative, they don't want to be associated with the social stigma of AIDS. So the suit was filed under a fictitious name.
The father, who is 43, said his daughter went for a routine gynecological exam in May 1991 and agreed to an HIV test because she was sexually active. The doctor called 11 days later, said the results were positive, and that there was little chance that both the screening and confirmatory tests could be wrong.
The parents started worrying that they and their other two children might be infected. They hid their anguish until after the girl's prom and her beach weekend. But when they finally sat down and told her, the father said, she wailed as if someone had died. "We cried for it seemed like hours," he said.
At the suggestion of a family physician, the entire family was retested. To their surprise, he said, the results were negative.