Audrey Serrano received HIV treatments for almost nine years before receiving a stunning diagnosis: She never actually had the virus that causes AIDS.
Now Serrano is suing a doctor who treated her, saying the powerful combination of drugs she took triggered a string of ailments, including depression, chronic fatigue, loss of weight and appetite and inflammation of the intestine.
"Today, it's still hard. One minute you think you have it, the next minute you don't," Serrano, the divorced mother of a 17-year-old girl, said Tuesday during a break in proceedings at Worcester Superior Court. "And your mind plays tricks on you, and you still live as if you have HIV, even though you don't."
Serrano, 45, is seeking unspecified damages in the lawsuit she filed in 2003. The original lawsuit named several medical providers but was amended to include just Dr. Kwan Lai, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester's HIV clinic.
Serrano's ordeal began in 1994 after an anonymous test at a clinic in Fitchburg showed that she was HIV positive. Serrano and her attorney, David Angueira, say they are unsure whether the initial test was a false positive, or if it was a record mix-up.
A doctor at the clinic in Fitchburg put Serrano on medication intended to contain the virus without conducting separate tests to confirm the diagnosis, said Angueira.
Serrano was referred to the clinic in Worcester, where Lai began treating her, the attorney said. Lai repeatedly failed to order definitive tests even after efforts to monitor how Serrano was responding to treatment did not show the presence of HIV in her blood, Angueira said.
Lai testified Tuesday that she had no reason to question Serrano's original diagnosis because Serrano convinced her she had the virus that causes AIDS.
"She convinced me that she was HIV (positive)," Lai told the court, saying Serrano told her that she had worked as a prostitute, her partner also had AIDS and that she had suffered three bouts of a type of pneumonia that was typically associated with those infected by the virus.
"I have never been a prostitute or a hooker, I've got too much respect for myself for that," Serrano said after the proceedings. She confirmed that her former boyfriend indeed tested positive for HIV/AIDS, but disputed the claim that she told the doctor that she had suffered bouts of Pneumocystis pneumonia.
"I believed she had HIV from the detailed history we took" and the fact that her blood had abnormal amounts of cells used to fight infections, Lai said.
Under cross examination, Lai said she never saw a document that proved conclusively that Serrano was HIV positive. Serrano refused to permit her to contact her former physician directly for more information and never signed a form that would allow other doctors to release medical records to her, Lai said.
Lai and her attorney, Joannie Gulliford Hoban, declined to comment outside the courtroom. The medical center has denied wrongdoing in the case.
The hearing started Monday and is expected to conclude next week.