A gay HIV-positive man is suing a US Catholic hospital in the city of Elizabeth, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Brooklyn, New York, for illegal discrimination against him because he is both gay and has HIV. The hospital refused to provide him with HIV treatment or to allow his sister to visit. This was because, as the doctor remarked to his HIV doctor,
“This is what he gets for going against God’s will.”
The Hospital proudly tells us
Trinitas Regional Medical Center is a Catholic community teaching hospital sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth …. . At Trinitas Regional Medical Center we dedicate ourselves to God’s healing mission. We strive to provide excellent, compassionate healthcare to the people and communities we serve, including those among us who are poor and vulnerable.
This Catholic hospital also has some inspiring and reassuring values:
- Compassion: Provide service in a caring, personalized manner to all and serve as an advocate for those in greatest need
- Reverence for Life: Recognize and respect the dignity and value of life in every stage and condition
- Charity: Witnesses to God’s love by serving all people
Homophobia and HIV judgmentalism
The Catholic hospital seems to have forgotten and abandoned these boasts in its treatment and care of a gay man living with HIV who was in its mental health unit, and as a result put his health at risk.
Illegal anti-HIV and anti-gay discrimination
It also seems to pay no regard to the New Jersey State law that bans discrimination because someone is gay, or has HIV. So it failed those two legal anti-discrimination requirements.
The hospital admitted him early in August 2011, and his legal claim is that his “requests for his lifesaving [HIV] medication were not honored,” and his sister was not allowed to visit him, for three days.
Mr Joao …. was admitted from the accident and emergency department and woke to find himself in a two person room in the hospital’s mental health unit. Soon after waking, Dr Susan V. Borga*, from the hospital’s Department of Behavioral Health and Psychiatry, asked the other patient first why he was there and he told her he’d just got out of prison for murder. ‘Barely reacting’, she responded, ‘Oh, OK.’
The Doctor then turned to Joao …. and, checking his file, while asking him whether he worked, he responded that he sold things on e-Bay and immediately, having just spotted the information in his file, she asked,
“So, you’re not working because of the HIV?”
He said that was part of the reason, but he planned to return to college. However Dr. Borga immediately went back to the issue of HIV and asked,
“And how did you get that?”
He told her “I got it from unprotected sex.”
The Doctor closed the file, put it down and looked at him with disgust on her face and asked coldly,
“Is that from sex with men?”
He said it was.
Immediately she went to leave the room, and as she walked out, handed an admissions slip to a nurse who was also in the room.
That nurse told him that if he wanted to admit himself voluntarily, he must sign the form, so he did.
He found out later his sister was at this time in the hospital wanting to see him but was refused permission by the nurses. As he was about to fall asleep that night a nurse told him he could not see his sister.
Day 2: the silent treatment
The following day no doctor or nurse ever came to him or spoke with him. He tried to ask other patients’ nurses for help and information, but the nurses always told him his social worker was going to talk to him. He didn’t get to see his social worker until around 6:00 p.m. that evening. As he is on treatment for HIV, taking his HIV drugs consistently every time they are due is essential to maintain his health, so he had begged the nurses for HIV medication, emphasising he must not miss any doses; however, each time the nurses told him that a doctor’s authorisation was required and this hadn’t been given.
The room he was in had large windows that allowed him to see the nurses’ station and people passing by, and to be seen. When he saw the doctor through the window he knocked on the glass but she wouldn’t even look at him. When he told the nurses that the doctor would not speak with him, the nurses said the doctor was busy and that she would talk later.
Day 3: his HIV doctor is shunned
The next day after numerous requests to use the telephone to call his specialist HIV doctor, he was finally allowed to use the phone. His HIV doctor told him the hospital doctor had already spoken with him and he had explained to her that his HIV patient must be given his HIV medication, Dr. Borga had replied “You must be gay, too, if you’re his doctor,” and noticing his HIV doctor had an accent, Dr. Borga exclaimed, “What, do you need a translator?” and his HIV doctor repeated that Dr Borga needed to provide the patient with his HIV treatment. Dr. Borga responded to his HIV doctor: “This is what he gets for going against God’s will,” and hung up the phone on the HIV doctor.
The same day his sister again attempted again to see him and brought his HIV drugs with her. He saw his sister leave his HIV drugs at the nurses’ station and it was only then that the nurses, who saw that he’d seen his sister hand his HIV drugs to them, that they finally gave him his HIV drugs. By then he had missed about five consecutive doses.
Punitive damages claim for humiliation, degradation and stress, & ban any HIV and anti-gay discrimination
His court claim is for punitive damages as compensation because of the humiliation, upset, embarrassment, degradation and stress, as well as for putting him at great medical risk, and for a court order not to illegally discriminate against either him or anyone else who is either gay or has HIV, because this is illegal under New Jersey discrimination law. The hospital is legally responsible for the doctor’s and nurses’ discrimination because they either have no policy against illegal HIV and sexuality discrimination, or they have no effective way to enforce their policy.
Claim for breach of confidentiality too?
If I was his lawyer, I would also sue for breach of confidentiality of his HIV status and sexuality. The hospital doctor exposed his HIV status and gay sexuality to the hearing of another patient, especially risky when the other patient has just admitted he was recently released from prison for murder, and both patients are in a mental health unit for initial mental assessments.
Revealing his HIV status and gay sexuality to another patient makes him vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, and potentially to assault because of either HIV, or being gay, or both.
Unprofessional, judgemental doctor
It is completely irrelevant how someone may have become HIV positive when carrying out a mental health admission assessment. Asking about this is prying, personally intrusive and unwarranted. The doctor specifically pried further and asked if the sexual transmission had been between men. She was already looking for a reason to judge her patient based on her Catholic/Christian beliefs about gay sex. His answer confirmed her obvious pre-existing homophobia from the look she gave him of disgust. She assumed and told his HIV doctor that he must be gay too, and then made her homophobic, judgemental statement: “This is what he gets for going against God’s will.”
New Jersey and the reality of HIV
The city is only just across the Hudson River from Brooklyn, New York one of the US major centres with a high rate of HIV infection, and the city of Elizabeth is one of the HIV hotspots in New Jersey state. There were 625 people living with HIV in a city population of just 125,000 people in 2010. That rate of HIV is almost twice as bad as the city of Manchester, England, which has the UK’s highest rate of HIV for any city outside London.
1 in 5 of the people living with HIV in Elizabeth got HIV through sex between men. 1 in 3 people there got HIV through sharing drug injecting equipment. 1 in 3 got HIV through heterosexual sex. The Doctor needs to accept and deal with the medical reality of how HIV is transmitted in her area, and refrain from making any unChristian judging of her patients at work.
There’s never a right time for judging other people, throwing the first stone, but Catholic hospital staff should know not to judge and legally discriminate while they are at work. Keep that away from work and do it in your own Church time if you really must.
Missing HIV treatment doses has health risks
The University of California at San Francisco AIDS Research Institute tells us why HIV treatment ‘adherence’ matters:
Treatment failure may occur rapidly with poor adherence. Some studies suggest that drug resistance can develop after one week of missed medication or irregular use, or after missing as little as one dose in five. When resistance to a drug develops, it loses its effectiveness forever; in some cases, cross-resistance to other drugs occurs, further limiting treatment options.
HIV discrimination by medical services is the most common source of HIV people’s complaints
It may seem odd the doctors and nurses would discriminate against people with HIV, but there are far more complaints of discrimination about the medical profession than there are about employers discriminating against workers with HIV. This study says 1 in 4 US people with HIV have experienced discrimination from medical professionals. Medical professionals discrimination against people with HIV happens widely on both sides of the Atlantic. There is no discrimination by doctors and nurses who are HIV specialists.
The problem arises elsewhere – in family doctor services, dentists, accident and emergency departments, any other department of a hospital or clinic that does not routinely deal with numbers of people living with HIV. Everyone living with HIV has regular contact with a range of medical professionals. Most medical staff have had no training about HIV and many may never have knowingly dealt with someone who is gay, or with a history of injecting drugs, or worked with migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, or countries with a high HIV prevalence.
Unfamiliarity is no excuse for discriminating on the basis of HIV status, sexuality, ethnicity, etc., all of which are illegal in the UK, as in New Jersey, USA. But unfamiliarity means these medical professionals are quite possibly carrying around negative and misinformed ideas about HIV and gay sexuality they have read in the tabloid press.
* according to the records her surname is spelt with a j, not the g given in the news report and legal claim
Psychiatric Services of NJ
Susan V Borja MD
His lawyer’s court application for punitive damages for sexuality and HIV discrimination and a court order to cease all such discrimination
A comment in the following blog (with a web-link source) tells us that Dr Susan V Borja’s patient satisfaction rating is only ‘one star’.
I posted this on my Facebook wall and I got several replies and comments from my friends. One said if it’s the same doctor that worked the floor where he was last fall … story fits and she’s nuts and not well liked. Another commented that the facts of the story are actually worse than what made the press.
New Jersey state HIV statistics (the city of Elizabeth is in Union County)