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THE TRIALS OF AN AIDS BABY

On June 1, Alex Edwards became the least popular victim in Arizona. That was the day Alex, a frail, five-year-old boy, won the nation's largest damage award in an AIDS-related lawsuit.

Arizona, at the time, was awash in sympathy for victims. Indeed, the state was on the verge of amending its constitution to enshrine a victims' "bill of rights."

But when a Phoenix jury awarded $28.7 million to Alex, an AIDS victim who contracted the virus from a blood transfusion shortly after his birth in 1985, the public greeted the decision not with cheers, but outrage. His parents, ordinary people who had struggled heroically to care for their son, suddenly looked like a pair of con artists who'd ripped off the system.

Newspapers voiced compassion for defendant Abraham Kuruvilla, the doctor who had ordered the transfusion. Alex is a victim of fate, they said, while Kuruvilla was betrayed by a legal system that punishes a good and decent man when, despite his best efforts, things go wrong. Media commentators and leading physicians leveled savage criticism at the jury and judge, questioning both their objectivity and competence.

The amount of damages was so ruinous, and the facts--as most people understand them--so clearly a constellation of bad luck rather than negligence, Kuruvilla supplanted Alex as the primary victim in the popular imagination. Even after the huge jury award was set aside in favor of a settlement, sympathy for the defendant continued to cascade from medical colleagues, patients' families and the public.

A widely respected Phoenix neonatologist, Kuruvilla says he intends to leave the practice of medicine; the jury's verdict, quite simply, has broken his heart. Convinced his case illustrates fatal flaws in the way our society compensates injuries, Kuruvilla readily grants interviews to discuss the litigation.

While the reactions of the doctor and his lawyers have been widely quoted since the trial, the same is not true for Patricia and Roy Edwards, who brought suit on behalf of their son. Except for their sworn testimony, only fragments of which were reported outside the MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.04 I9.06 courtroom, the Edwardses remained silent during the trial at the behest of their attorneys.

For all this community's supposed interest in victims, once the Edwardses were free to talk, no one sought them out. No one asked what difference the verdict made to Alex or why the Edwardses pressed forward so relentlessly with a lawsuit against the man who once had tried to save their son's life.

ALEX'S DAY DOES NOT BEGIN until his sister Sheila, fifteen, and brother Cody, eight, have departed for school over the sandy trails leading from their home east of Apache Junction. Until then, Alex remains snuggled, usually next to his mother, in a warm bed.

Once the older children have been seen off, Alex's parents turn their attention to him because he requires their full attention whenever he is awake. One or both of them will stay with him constantly until he drops off to sleep in his wheelchair. Each morning, Pat or Roy lifts him out of bed, taking care to support his head, and places him in a wheelchair sized to fit his tiny frame. Alex turned five in March, but he is about the size of a two-year-old, the age he was when the AIDS virus made its first big push to take control of his body.

Until then he had been an active, precocious baby, learning to walk at nine months and talking in short sentences well before he was two. But the AIDS virus attacked--or allowed another, unknown virus to attack--the portion of his brain that controls growth. Within a few months, his busy little hands and feet slowed down, grew still and then began curling inward like leaves shriveling in the autumn chill. Little by little, the virus robbed him of speech.

His parents had no idea why this blight had struck their son, nor did the specialists they sought out as they made their way through a long line of medical referrals. Dr. Mark Rudinsky, an infectious-disease specialist at Phoenix Children's Hospital, finally made the diagnosis in February 1987 when, after a series of fruitless tests, he ordered the toddler's blood tested for AIDS.

Many more months elapsed before the Edwardses traced the source of Alex's exposure. Pat still blushes at the series of humiliating questions she and Roy were asked about drug use and their sexual habits. Roy's hair, which he has worn long all his life, triggered Col 3, Depth P54.02 I9.03 where the most advanced treatment would be close at hand should his condition worsen.

Once at Phoenix Children's Hospital, Alex quickly improved and he was soon ready to go home. His relieved parents were unaware that the neonatologist on duty, Kuruvilla, had ordered a second transfusion for Alex, this time using "reconstituted" blood containing both red blood cells and plasma from separate donors. The plasma contained the AIDS virus, but had not been tested because the AIDS test was not yet available in Phoenix.

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Kathleen Stanton