10 years later, prisoner hears grim diagnosis
By Mark Fazlollah and Jennifer Lin
TRENTON, N.J. Prisoner Jose Lopez was frightened and confused after prison health officials told him on July 23 that he had hepatitis C, and it was damaging his liver.
The Bayside State Prison inmate was afraid he was dying.
Wanting to learn more, Lopez, 47, asked prison health counselor Genevieve Cunningham to get him his prison medical records.
Lopez would be shocked by what the records showed that he'd tested positive for hepatitis C in 1992 and no one ever told him.
Cunningham, too, would be shocked when she lost her job for giving him the records.
Last week, Cunningham was barred from working at Bayside in Cumberland County, or any New Jersey prison.
"She's being banned from the institutions for not following protocol," said Deirdre Fedkenheur, a prison spokeswoman.
Fedkenheur said Cunningham provided a copy of the records to Lopez without charging him. He was given more than 300 pages and should have paid 10 cents per page, or $ 30.
"Those things have to be paid for," Fedkenheur said.
She said Cunningham also had a previous violation for using a prison computer without authorization.
Cunningham, 46, a nurse and single mother from Ventnor Heights, N.J., now is preparing to sue the state. Because of the prison ban, her employer, the South Jersey AIDS Alliance, was forced to lay her off.
"This is a classic example of a whistleblower situation, nothing more, nothing less," said her attorney, Bernard McBride.
What Lopez's medical records show is that he tested positive for hepatitis C in 1992 a decade before he was told. A doctor's 1992 note also mentioned Lopez's blood work, which indicated liver problems.
Blood-test results in later years show that his liver enzymes were consistently elevated a red flag for hepatitis C.
"You can't just ignore it," said Dr. Carroll Leevy, a liver specialist at Newark's University Hospital who reviewed Lopez's records for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Last May, Lopez's health deteriorated sharply, according to a prison interview with him, medical records and internal memos from the Department of Corrections, acquired through the state's Open Records Act.
Lopez, in prison since 1982 on robbery and gun charges, reported to the infirmary with a heavy nosebleed.
"I think something's wrong," he told a nurse before he darted for the bathroom and retched up blood.
The prison nurse noted that Lopez vomited so much blood he left puddles two feet wide.
He was rushed to a nearby hospital, where doctors found his esophagus was raw with ulcers a common symptom of liver cirrhosis caused by hepatitis C.
After the hemorrhaging stopped, Lopez returned to Bayside, but no one explained the bleeding, Lopez said.
On July 2, Lopez entered Cunningham's health class at Bayside hoping to get answers. Cunningham urged him to get tested, starting with an HIV screening, which came back negative.
When on July 23, Lopez learned he'd tested positive for hepatitis C, he brought it to the attention of Cunningham's health class.
"I told them . . . I want to have more knowledge on what I'm dealing with," Lopez told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
He'd already requested his medical records from the prison health care provider, Correctional Medical Services (CMS), but he knew that route could take months.
So he turned to Cunningham.
Attorney McBride said other employees of the AIDS Alliance had obtained records for inmates, without paying for them. Such records, he said, are an important tool in educating inmates about their health and working out a plan to take care of themselves after prison.
As for Cunningham's alleged misuse of a computer, he said a prison clerk with authorized access to medical records was helping her look up the inmate's records. He said Cunningham "hit the print button, that's all."
Cunningham's employer, the AIDS Alliance, declined to comment on the case, referring questions to the Corrections Department.
Lopez's family said they thought Cunningham should be thanked not punished.
"She was a godsend," said Linda Mulero, of Pennsauken, N.J., who has a son with Lopez.
At this point, treatment options for Lopez are limited. Depending on the extent of his liver damage, he may need a transplant.
Last week, he was back in the prison clinic with serious nosebleeds.
(c) 2002, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Finally, N.J. informs all inmates of hepatitis C
New Jersey prisons failed to tell hundreds of inmates that they were infected with the potentially fatal hepatitis C virus, in many cases withholding the information for more than a year.
(By Mark Fazlollah and Jennifer Lin, Inquirer Staff Writers, 10/06/2002 03:01 am EDT)