Doctor censured for fraud Physician put girlfriend's name on AIDS sample

April 04, 1992|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

A Baltimore doctor has been disciplined after he sought revenge on an ex-girlfriend by putting her name on a blood sample from an AIDS patient and then forging another doctor's name to order the sample tested for AIDS.

The woman was later told the blood tested positive for the deadly virus, but she knew the sample was not hers, according to the doctor's lawyer.

The doctor, Thomas A. DiGiovanna, 35, of Carrollwood in Baltimore County, resigned his post in the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Dec. 23 while the incident was under investigation by the hospital.

The Maryland Board of Physician Quality Assurance last week reprimanded Dr. DiGiovanna and ordered him to perform 100 hours of community service in a medical facility devoted to treating acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The doctor also agreed to write letters of apology to the woman and others involved in the Feb. 22, 1991, hoax.

He continues to practice medicine at an undisclosed facility.

Dr. DiGiovanna's attorney, Patricia V. Fettmann, yesterday called the incident a "very unfortunate" one "for which he is very embarrassed."

At the time the events took place, Ms. Fettmann said, Dr. DiGiovanna was suffering from "extreme stress, depression" and the effects of Dilantin, a drug he was taking for a seizure disorder.

J. Michael Compton, acting executive director of the Board of Physician Quality Assurance, said the board "really discredited the Dilantin excuse."

Further, he said, "if you're stressed and depressed, that really doesn't give you an excuse to do what he did, in the board's opinion."

Mr. Compton said the doctor's ex-girlfriend was a nurse at Hopkins. Her name was not disclosed.

"In order to get back at her for whatever he felt she had done to him, he took a bottle of HIV-positive blood that was not hers, and put her name on it," he said.

He then wrote in the name of another physician at Hopkins as the doctor ordering the blood test, "and ran it through the lab," Mr. Compton said.

"Any time that you falsify a record in the practice of medicine, it's a very, very serious offense," Mr. Compton said.

Ms. Fettmann said the mislabeled blood tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus and the results were reported to the victim of the hoax.

The woman "very promptly said, 'I never submitted for a blood test,' and that was it," Ms. Fettmann said. "There was no way she could ever have even thought she had AIDS."

Ruth A. Jakubowski, an attorney for the girlfriend, said the hoax did have consequences for her client but declined to discuss them or what led up to the falsified test. She described the events as "very serious and tragic."

The nurse has not filed a civil lawsuit against Dr. DiGiovanna, Ms. Jakubowski said.

Elaine Freeman, a spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins Hospital, said that immediately after the February 1991 incident, the hospital began a "lengthy and detailed investigation." While it continued, Dr. DiGiovanna's work assignment remained unchanged because the hospital did not believe patients were at risk. "At no time were patients involved or compromised," she said.

The investigation was "about to conclude" when Dr. DiGiovanna resigned on Dec. 23, Ms. Freeman said. The results of the investigation were then reported to the Board of Physician Quality Assurance.

The board's inquiry took just three months, in part because Dr. DiGiovanna did not contest the facts. Such matters normally take a year, Mr. Compton said.

The board's decision to place a letter of reprimand in the doctor's licensing file was "a pretty heavy sanction . . . that will stay with him the rest of his career," Mr. Compton said. "He will have to produce the reprimand and explain it" whenever he seeks a new or renewed medical license, applies for malpractice insurance or for membership in any state medical society.

Members of the board considered suspending Dr. DiGiovanna's NTC license to practice medicine in Maryland, but finally rejected the idea, he said.

"They reasoned that since he lost his position, and had spent a good deal of money on his legal defense already, that he was definitely aware of his mistake and probably would never try anything like that again," Mr. Compton said.

Dr. DiGiovanna was targeted earlier this year by the U.S. attorney's office as one of the eight "deadbeat doctors" sought for failure to repay government scholarships by taking jobs in medically under-served areas.

The Justice Department said Dr. DiGiovanna had $36,498 in unfulfilled financial obligations to the government, which interest and penalties had swollen to $272,847.

Three private process servers hired by the government were unable to find him for nearly two years. The doctor's attorney blamed that on "sloppy process servers."

Dr. Giovanna's case figured prominently in a story in the Sun on Feb. 2 about medical scholarships that were never repaid.

Jefferson M. Gray, the assistant U.S. attorney on the case, said yesterday that Dr. DiGiovanna came forward soon after the article appeared. Two weeks ago the doctor reached an agreement with the government that calls for him to work two years at Putnam County General Hospital in Florida beginning in July. He will not be required to repay any cash to satisfy his debt.

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