$2.5M awarded in malpractice case; Misdiagnosed woman HIV-free.

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Byline: Gary V. Murray

WORCESTER - A Fitchburg woman who was prescribed a regimen of powerful drugs for several years after being misdiagnosed with the virus that causes AIDS was awarded $2.5 million yesterday by a Worcester Superior Court jury.

Audrey Serrano, 45, wept and hugged her mother, Shirley Paskell, when the verdict was returned yesterday afternoon in a medical malpractice suit brought by Ms. Serrano against Dr. Kwan K. Lai, one of the doctors who treated her after she was misdiagnosed as being HIV positive in 1994.

With interest, the jury's award is expected to total about $3.7 million.

Dr. Lai, of Belmont, worked at an HIV clinic at UMass Memorial Medical Center - University Campus and treated Ms. Serrano from 1996 to 2003. Ms. Serrano had been diagnosed HIV positive in 1994 by the Family Practice Clinic in Fitchburg.

In 2003, Ms. Serrano went for another HIV test at a different hospital. The results were negative.

Ms. Serrano said she suffered a multitude of physical and psychological ailments, including depression, fatigue, weight loss and intestinal problems, as a result of the combination of medications prescribed for her by Dr. Lai and others. The lawsuit accused Dr. Lai of negligence for failing to conduct separate tests to confirm Ms. Serrano's diagnosis.

Dr. Lai, who was not present in the courtroom when the verdict was returned, testified that there was no reason for her to question the original diagnosis because Ms. Serrano convinced her she was HIV positive. Dr. Lai said Ms. Serrano told her she had worked as a prostitute, her partner had AIDS and she had suffered PCP, a type of pneumonia unusual in people without the AIDS virus.

In addition, the doctor said, some of Ms. Serrano's blood tests showed abnormal amounts of cells used to fight infections.

Ms. Serrano denied ever working as a prostitute or telling Dr. Lai that she did. She also disputed Dr. Lai's contention that she told the doctor she had PCP in the past.

In her closing argument to the jury Tuesday, Dr. Lai's lawyer, Joanne Gulliford Hoban, said it was perfectly appropriate for Dr. Lai to rely on the history provided by Ms. Serrano, particularly after ordering blood tests that reinforced her belief Ms. Serrano had the virus that causes AIDS. Ms. Hoban said there was no need for the doctor to order another HIV test and her failure to do so did not amount to medical malpractice.

"Dr. Lai didn't give her the positive result. She...

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