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UPMC Transplant Error

Christina Mecannic just wanted to help her life partner of 21 years, who’d been told by doctors he could die without a new kidney.

Mecannic, 40, of Morgan in Greene County underwent surgery on April 6 at UPMC Montefiore to give one of her kidneys to Michael Yocabet, the father of their 18-year-old son. Her act of kindness turned tragic a month later when the couple found out Mecannic is infected with the hepatitis C virus and had unknowingly passed it to Yocabet during the transplant.

“I feel like I’ve caused more damage,” Mecannic said on Tuesday, after the pair filed lawsuits against UPMC and University of Pittsburgh Physicians claiming doctors should have stopped the surgery because Mecannic’s blood work showed she had hepatitis C on Jan. 26. “I feel like I haven’t helped him. When they told me, I was actually in shock and totally devastated. I can’t even describe the feeling.”

Mecannic and Yocabet filed separate lawsuits in Allegheny Common Pleas court. They name as defendants Drs. Henkie Tan, Mark Sturdevant, Jennifer L. Steel and Nirav Shah, Nurse Mimi Funovits, and others in the UPMC transplant program.

The lawsuits also alleges a UPMC surgeon suggested to Mecannic that she not tell her partner about the infection.

“We sincerely regret the human error that caused this situation ... any allegation of a cover-up is completely false,” UPMC spokeswoman Jennifer Yates said in a statement. “The well-being of our patients remains our highest priority.”

The couple’s appearance yesterday at the Downtown office of attorney Harry Cohen put a face on an incident that rocked UPMC’s world renowned living-donor transplant program. The Tribune-Review first reported the program’s shutdown.

Hospital officials confirmed the statement in the lawsuits that they suspended both the live-donor kidney and liver transplant programs on May 6—the day doctors told Mecannic and Yocabet they were infected with hepatitis C—and not on May 9 as they originally reported to the Trib. The programs reopened July 14 after federal reviewers with the United Network for Organ Sharing concluded human error caused the mistake.

Upon the program’s reopening in July, UPMC transplant chief Dr. Abhi Humar told the Trib that officials established additional checks and balances so that multiple workers review donor records.

Yocabet, 50, has battled diabetes for more than three decades. A disease called diabetic nephropathy damaged his kidneys and forced him to undergo dialysis for about seven months. He was listed for a kidney transplant in January.

The lawsuits claim UPMC doctors had the opportunity to pick up on Mecannic’s infection at least six times prior to the surgery, including two meetings of the UPMC Transplant Selection Committee on Feb. 17 and March 23. Mecannic received a letter from UPMC on March 24 telling her she was a suitable donor.

Hepatitis C virus can be spread by contact with infected blood or by sexual relations with an infected person. Most people with the virus do not show symptoms for several years.

Mecannic, a licensed practical nurse, suspects she could have picked up the infection at one of the nursing homes where she worked. She did not name the nursing homes but said she is not working because she is taking care of Yocabet.

“As a nurse, that’s one of the hazards of the job,” she said. “You are exposed to many contagious illnesses.”

Yocabet placed the blame squarely on UPMC. He first heard about the infection from Mecannic, seconds after she met alone with a UPMC surgeon on May 6. At the meeting, the UPMC doctor asked Mecannic whether she had ever cheated on Yocabet or used cocaine, the lawsuits said.

Mecannic said she was insulted by the questions. She said the surgeon told her she did not have to tell her life partner that she was infected, an option she immediately rejected.

A shaken Mecannic said she came out of the meeting and told Yocabet: “You’re never going to believe what they just told me.”

“I was blown away by it,” said Yocabet, who once hoped to be a truck driver but hasn’t worked in 20 years because of his illness. Genotype sequencing performed May 6 confirmed he was infected with the hepatitis C virus from Mecannic. “I couldn’t believe something like that could happen to me.”

The lawsuits said UPMC psychologist Jennifer Steel called Mecannic on May 10 and insinuated the couple or some family member or friend had leaked the story to a newspaper. The Tribune-Review first reported the story on that day. Mecannic and Yocabet said they did not provide any information to the media and were upset the matter had become public.

Mecannic and Yocabet said yesterday they have shown no symptoms of the virus. Mecannic said she fears the illness will damage Yocabet’s liver and he may require a liver transplant. Yocabet is getting check-ups and treatment at The Cleveland Clinic.

“Anyone with a basic medical education or knowledge could have seen this hepatitis C on a lab report,” Cohen said. “Yet nobody reacted to the test result and ... nobody stopped the surgery.”