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Published: Friday, 6/1/2007

Quarantined TB patient: 'I hope they forgive me'

DENVER -- An Atlanta attorney quarantined with a dangerous strain of tuberculosis apologized to his fellow plane passengers in an interview aired Friday, and insisted he was told he wasn't contagious or a threat to anyone.

"I've lived in this state of constant fear and anxiety and exhaustion for a week now, and to think that someone else is now feeling that, I wouldn't want anyone to feel that way. It's awful," Andrew Speaker told ABC's "Good Morning America" from his hospital room in Denver.

Sitting in street clothes but speaking through a face mask, he repeatedly apologized to the dozens of airline passengers and crew members now anxiously awaiting their own test results because of the exposure to him.

"I don't expect for people to ever forgive me. I just hope that they understand that I truly never meant to put them in harm," he said, his voice cracking.

Speaker, 31, said he, his doctors and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all knew he had TB that was resistant to front-line drugs before he flew to Europe for his wedding and honeymoon last month. But he said he was advised then that he wasn't contagious or a danger to anyone.

Officials told him they would prefer he didn't fly, but no one ordered him not to, he said. Speaker said his father, also a lawyer, taped that meeting.

"My father said, 'OK, now are you saying, prefer not to go on the trip because he's a risk to anybody, or are you simply saying that to cover yourself?' And they said, we have to tell you that to cover ourself, but he's not a risk."

Speaker was in Europe when he learned tests showed he had, not just TB, but an especially dangerous, extensively drug-resistant strain.

"He was told in no uncertain terms not to take a flight back," said Dr. Martin Cetron, director of the CDC's division of global migration and quarantine. Cetron said Wednesday that in conversations between health officials and Speaker before the flight, "they clearly told him not to travel," but "there were no legal orders in place preventing his travel, and no laws were broken."

Speaker, his new wife and her 8-year-old daughter were already in Europe when the CDC contacted him and told him to turn himself in immediately at a clinic there and not take another commercial flight.

He said he felt as if the CDC had suddenly "abandoned him." At that point, he said, he believed if he didn't get to the specialized clinic in Denver, he would die.

"Before I left, I knew that it was made clear to me, that in order to fight this, I had one shot, and that was going to be in Denver," he said. If doctors in Europe tried to treat him and it went wrong, he said, "it's very real that I could have died there."

Even though U.S. officials had put Speaker on a warning list, he caught a flight to Montreal and then drove across the U.S. border on May 24 at Champlain, N.Y. A border inspector who checked him disregarded a computer warning to stop Speaker, officials said Thursday.

The unidentified inspector later said the infected man seemed perfectly healthy and that he thought the warning was merely "discretionary," officials briefed on the case told The Associated Press. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the matter is still under investigation. The inspector has since been removed from border duty.

The next day, Speaker became the first infected person quarantined by the U.S. government since 1963.

He was flown by medical transport Thursday to National Jewish Medical and Research Center, where doctors put him in an isolation room where he will be treated with oral and intravenous antibiotics.

Speaker's new father-in-law, Robert C. Cooksey, is a CDC microbiologist whose specialty is TB and other bacteria, but he said neither he nor his CDC lab was the source of Speaker's TB.

The disclosure that the patient is a lawyer _ and specifically a personal injury lawyer _ outraged many people on the Internet and elsewhere. Some travelers who flew on the same planes with Speaker angrily accused him of selfishly putting hundreds of people's lives in danger.

"I am glad to see that he's taking responsibility for some of this," 21-year-old Laney Wiggins, one of more than two dozen University of South Carolina-Aiken students who are getting skin tests for TB, said Friday. "It makes me feel a little better about the situation."

Jason Vik, a 21-year-old business student also on the flight, said he had been through the same emotions Speaker named and was treated like an outcast. During a television interview, the people doing his makeup wore face masks, he said.

"There are lot of people that are just afraid of us. It's ridiculous and ignorant," he said.

Asked about the apology, Vik said, "People have to still remember that this is going to affect us for the next five, 10 years of our lives because we're going to have to keep getting tests even if we're negative just because we were on the plane with this guy."

Speaker's new wife, Sarah, fought back tears as she told ABC about the horrible things said had heard said about her husband: that he was a terrorist, that he should have been eradicated.

"Imagine sitting in a foreign country with your husband and your government saying they were going to leave you there," she said through tears.

She said she has tested negative for TB, despite being closer to him over the past month than anyone, and she is praying no one else tests positive for the disease.

Both Speaker and his father-in-law said they didn't believe he was a danger when he left for Europe.

"I never would have put my family at risk, and my daughter at risk. I repeatedly asked my doctors, 'Is my family at risk? Is anybody at risk of this?'" Speaker said. "They told me I wasn't contagious and I wasn't dangerous."

Speaker said he and his wife were "scared out of our minds" at the prospect of being indefinitely placed in an Italian hospital and dying there.

"In hindsight, maybe it wasn't the best decision, but I did ask if it was voluntary. And in my mind, I thought that if I went there, if I waited until they showed up, that meant I was going to die," Speaker said.

"I know people will judge it," he said. "Truly, in our minds, we were told we were not a threat to the people around us and we wanted to get home.

"I just hope they can forgive me."

Dr. Charles Daley, chief of the National Jewish Hospital's infectious-disease division, said he is optimistic Speaker can be cured because he is appears to be in the early stages of the disease.

He is "a young, healthy individual" who is "doing extremely well," Dr. Gwen Huitt said Thursday.

"By conventional methods that we traditionally use in the public health arena ... he would be considered low infectivity at this point in time," she said. "He is not coughing, he is healthy, he does not have a fever."

Doctors hope to determine where he contracted the disease, which has been found around the world and exists in pockets in Russia and Asia. The tuberculosis was discovered by accident when Speaker had a chest X-ray in January for a rib injury, Huitt said.

Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com



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