Robin Rombach  /  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP
Michael Yocabet and Christina Mecannic discuss new lawsuits they've filed against the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and others. Doctors transplanted a kidney from Mecannic into Yocabet, her longtime companion, despite a test that showed she was infected with hepatitis C. She said she's devastated at the thought she unknowingly gave him a potentially deadly liver infection.
Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 9/21/2011 8:59:34 AM ET 2011-09-21T12:59:34

A Pennsylvania couple is suing a prominent medical center after doctors transplanted the woman’s kidney into her boyfriend’s body despite a test that showed she was infected with hepatitis C.

Christina L. Mecannic, 40, and Michael J. Yocabet, 50, of Greene County, Pa., said he’s now got the potentially fatal liver disease after the April 6 transplant at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center that was meant to save his life.

“He did need it very badly,” Mecannic told msnbc.com. “The dialysis was not working well for him. He was not doing well. I just wanted to do whatever I could to help.”

In two medical malpractice lawsuits filed Tuesday in Allegheny County, the couple alleges negligence on the part of UPMC Presbyterian, University of Pittsburgh Physicians, four doctors, a nurse and the entire staff of the hospital’s kidney transplant center.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

The suits allege that the transplant team missed a crucial blood test result conducted as early as Jan. 26 that showed Mecannic had the virus, and then failed to note the positive result at several points before the transplant.

Further, the lawsuits claim that doctors asked Mecannic whether she’d “cheated on” her partner of 21 years and father of their 18-year-old son, and accused her of using cocaine before offering her the option of keeping the hepatitis C diagnosis secret from Yocabet.

Story: Infected organs pose deadly transplant risk

“Not believing what she was hearing, Ms. Mecannic told the surgeon that she had not been unfaithful to Mr. Yocabet and that she was certainly going to tell Mr. Yocabet about what had happened since it significantly affected his health and success of the kidney transplant,” her lawsuit says.

Hospital officials also accused the couple of leaking information about the botched transplant to local media outlets. They were “deeply offended by the insinuation,” the lawsuits say.

UPMC officials denied that staff engaged in any kind of cover-up and said that they responded by shuttering the hospital’s kidney and liver transplant centers for two months, notifying investigators at the United Network for Organ Sharing, or UNOS, demoting a surgeon and suspending a nurse.

“We sincerely regret the human error that caused this situation …” spokeswoman Jennifer Yates said in a statement. “Once the error was discovered, UPMC disclosed the information to the patients involved and UNOS. We voluntarily suspended our live-donor program and have fully complied with all investigations. The well-being of our patients remains our highest priority.”

Mecannic said she decided to donate a kidney to Yocabet, who suffers from Type 1 diabetes and diabetes-related kidney disease, after doctors told her that an organ from a living donor had a better chance of success than one from a deceased donor.

“We were so happy when we found out we were compatible,” Mecannic said.

Her kidney is among nearly 6,200 provided by living donors in the United States each year, and some 10,400 from deceased donors. Overall, more than 28,000 organs of all types are transplanted each year, but 112,000 people need the operations and more than 6,500 die waiting for them, according to statistics from UNOS.

News of the UPMC lawsuits comes just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is issuing draft guidelines that would call for more thorough donor screening and advanced organ testing, including new requirements to test donors for hepatitis C and hepatitis B as well as HIV.

Currently, living donors can be screened for a battery of infections, including HIV, hepatitis and syphilis, as well as some other rare diseases. One problem, however, according to the CDC, is that although donors are routinely screened for HIV, there are no other requirements for testing living donors and screening can vary among transplant centers.

From 2007 to 2010, CDC investigated more than 200 cases of suspected unexpected transmission of HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C through transplants. Of those that were confirmed, some led to the death of the transplant recipients, said Dr. Matthew J. Kuehnert, director of the CDC's office of blood, organ and other tissue safety.

A UNOS spokeswoman said she couldn't reveal the results of any investigation in the Pittsburgh case, and added that UPMC remained in good standing with the agency.

According to the lawsuits, Mecannic’s Jan. 26 blood screen revealed that she was infected with hepatitis C.  But hospital officials failed to notify her of the result and dismiss her as a donor. Instead, Dr. Mark Sturdevant, a UPMC transplant surgeon, noted that he considered Mecannic to be "an excellent candidate for kidney donation," her lawsuit alleges.

The transplant itself went well, with both Mecannic and Yocabet released from the hospital within days.

On April 22, another test confirmed that Mecannic had hepatitis C. The lawsuit alleges hospital staff didn't inform her of the positive test then, even as they analyzed the results to determine her level of viral load, or on April 29, when they called Yocabet in for additional blood tests. On May 6, however, a month after the transplant, doctors called Mecannic into the meeting where they allegedly accused her of infidelity and drug use and revealed her infection.

“They never actually did come out and say they made a mistake,” she said. “They gave an apology but they never said they messed up.”

Mecannic believes she may have contracted hepatitis C as part of her past work as a licensed practical nurse at nursing homes, where she was exposed to blood, her lawyer said. She denies any previous drug use and says she has never had any symptoms of hepatitis infection.

Yocabet, a disabled former truck driver, faces the prospect that treatment for the liver disease could harm his new kidney, leading to organ failure and death.

“Because he’s on anti-rejection drugs, the hepatitis C will be a lot worse in him,” Mecannic said.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Video: Couple sues hospital over kidney transplant