Court Hears Suit After AIDS Devastates Family : Marine Cites Wife’s Transfusion in Claim Against Government
Clutching her father’s hand, a little girl in Mary Jane shoes entered a federal courtroom here this week as the co-plaintiff in a $55-million lawsuit against the U.S. government.
Maureene Emiko Gaffney, 6, is the sole member of her family to escape infection with the virus that causes AIDS.
She and her father, Marine Chief Warrant Officer Martin F. Gaffney, contend that the virus was passed through the family because of a contaminated blood transfusion her mother, Mutsuko, received following the stillbirth of a child at Long Beach Naval Hospital in 1981. Their suit charges that medical negligence on the part of government doctors resulted as well in the death in utero of the baby boy Mutsuko Gaffney was carrying.
Had Mrs. Gaffney received “minimally appropriate treatment” at the Long Beach hospital during her pregnancy, the Gaffneys’ lawyer, Jaclyn McKenney, contended in opening arguments, “then the Gaffney family today would be intact and healthy.”
Instead, 40-year-old Martin Gaffney has buried two sons and his wife and Gaffney himself has tested positive for the HIV virus that causes AIDS. He has shown no symptoms of AIDS, but infection with the virus is almost invariably followed by the disease.
The government offers no comment, but maintains that proper medical procedures were observed. Gaffney thinks otherwise. “It’s like a horror story,” he said before the trial began. “If you tried to make up a worse scenario, you couldn’t.”
Little John Martin Gaffney, born in 1985, was the first to show symptoms. Sickly almost since birth, the baby had a nasty, nagging cough and persistent fevers. Military doctors in Hawaii, where Martin Gaffney was by then stationed, ruled out whooping cough or pneumonia, but were baffled by the child’s condition.
Talked About Transplants
“They didn’t know what they were looking for,” Gaffney’s brother John, the baby’s namesake, said during a brief court recess. “I remember they talked about the possibility of bone marrow transplants.”
Then in May of 1986, John Gaffney got a chilling phone call from his mother in Hemet.
“She said that Martin had just called, and that everyone except Maureene was infected with AIDS. It was devastating.”
Martin Gaffney remembers his wife’s reaction to the diagnosis. She turned to the doctor, he said, and asked for enough sleeping pills to commit suicide.
They were monogamous, the Gaffneys told the doctor. No, said Gaffney, he had never had a homosexual experience. They had never used intravenous drugs.
Well, the physician then asked, had there ever been a transfusion?
They remembered the stillbirth in 1981 of Martin Shin Gaffney. After the Cesarean procedure, Mrs. Gaffney suffered an infection and lost blood. She received two units of blood.
“AIDS” was barely a murmur in the national vocabulary of 1981. Where it existed at all, testing for AIDS was primitive, and far from accurate.
In response to Gaffney’s complaint, the Navy in 1986 located the two donors. One tested negative. The second refused to be tested. In a letter from Rear Adm. J. S. Cassells, then the commander of the U.S. Naval Medical Command, Gaffney learned that the latter donor had been “separated” from the Marine Corps “due to homosexual acts.”
Privacy restrictions prevented disclosure of that donor’s name, the government told Gaffney. But when he finally received records of the matter, “they’d done a bad job,” Gaffney said. “They blotted his name out in some places, but not in others.”
Eventually, Gaffney said he was able to speak to the donor’s lawyer.
“Both the lawyer and the donor expressed their sincerest sympathies,” Gaffney said. “But he said he wouldn’t be tested.”
Without “medical negligence” while Mutsuko Gaffney was carrying her first child, the Gaffneys’ suit maintains, the questionable transfusion would never have been necessary.
Taking the stand as the first witness, Martin Gaffney described how he met his Japanese-born wife while he was stationed on Okinawa. She was two months pregnant when they were married.
An otherwise uneventful pregnancy dragged into its 42nd week, two weeks past the normal 40-week gestation. Gaffney testified that Dr. John Yeast, head of the Long Beach Naval Hospital’s obstetrics unit, advised no intervention.
“He said they like to let things happen naturally, for nature to take its course,” Gaffney said.
At the end of her 44th week of pregnancy, Mrs. Gaffney went to the hospital, complaining of labor pains. “The nurse said it was a false alarm and to go home,” Gaffney related.
Two days later, on Sept. 21, 1981, the Gaffneys once again rushed to the hospital. This time, a doctor examined Mrs. Gaffney and told her the baby was dead. The dead child delivered by Cesarean section weighed 11 pounds.
Dr. Jeffrey S. Greenspoon, an expert summoned by the plaintiffs, testified that “there was a breach in the standards of care” when labor was not induced in Mrs. Gaffney a full five days before the stillbirth. Greenspoon is on the staff of the women’s hospital at USC-L.A. County Medical Center, which he termed “the busiest obstetrics unit in the United States.”
The plaintiffs rested their case late Wednesday, after testimony from a pathologist, Dr. Eva S. Mikhail.
Representing the government in the case before U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel, Marianne Bowler, an assistant U.S. attorney, said that “a series of unfortunate, if not tragic, events have befallen the Gaffney family, but not as a result of negligence on behalf of the United States or its employees or servants.”
Mutsuko Gaffney’s doctors, said Bowler, “acted consistently with professional standards.”
Under the federal tort claims act, the initial, liability phase of the trial, which is expected to conclude next week, is not being heard by a jury. Should a second phase be required to award damages, a jury will act in an advisory capacity.
Martin Gaffney, once a long-distance runner, has been sitting stolidly in the front row of the small courtroom as the agonizing details of his family’s story are replayed. He has shown no emotion.
He says the case is largely about a father trying to do right by his daughter.
“It’s about that,” he said, “but it’s about other things too.”
Spared, through some miracle, from infection with the AIDS virus, Maureene Gaffney has nonetheless done her share of suffering. Baby Johnny went to heaven, her father told her, and Mommy went there too, to look after him. She knows her father may also get sick.
Maureene was not in court by the trial’s third day. Her father said she was bored with the proceedings.
TELLING THEIR STORY--Former television star, wife tell of family’s painful battle against AIDS. View, Page 1