SAN DIEGO — Early in March of 1987, Dorothy and William Polikoff went to a health fair at the Veterans Administration regional medical center here. At a "Play Safe" booth, she remembers, "They were giving out condoms. They gave Bill a condom and he laughed and said, 'I've been married for 40 years.' "
They did take home brochures urging that anyone at high risk for AIDS contact the county Health Department for testing. As they read, their uneasiness grew. Three years before, Bill had been given blood transfusions during bypass surgery; in June of 1986, after Dorothy had come down with hepatitis B, he had been discovered to be the hepatitis carrier.
For months afterward, the Polikoffs, certain that the donated blood had been infected with the hepatitis virus, had grown increasingly apprehensive as they read about transmission of AIDS through transfusions. Since September of 1986, they had been asking to be tested for the AIDS virus at the San Diego VA Hospital but, Dorothy said, three doctors there "told us there was nothing to worry about . . . it was not necessary." By February, Bill had developed a lump under one arm, was having night sweats and intermittent high fevers.
After that, they decided on their own to get the tests, through San Diego County. On April 2, four days after celebrating their wedding anniversary with their four children in Denver, the Polikoffs got the news: Both of them had the antibodies for HTLV-III (now called HIV or Human Immunodeficiency Virus), which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The next day, a biopsy of Bill's armpit node showed invasion of the AIDS virus.
From that moment, Dorothy said, she began living "on tranquilizers and sleeping pills."
Death Ends His Fight
On Dec. 16, William Polikoff, 70, was buried with military honors at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on Point Loma. Although the final autopsy report is pending (an independent pathologist requested by the Polikoffs' attorney was brought in), Dorothy said she is convinced that her husband died of AIDS.
She is, by description of her attorney, Michael Orfield, "mad as hell." On her behalf, he has filed a wrongful-death suit against the UCSD Medical Center, where Polikoff's open-heart surgery was performed, and has submitted a claim against the Veterans Administration. Charging each with negligence, he is asking a total of $1 million in damages.
"It's not important to me to win the suit," she said. "It's important that doctors realize their responsibility, not just to Bill and me, but to mankind. They never should take blood from sick people. It could have been prevented, and they can save someone else the torment, the anguish."
Dorothy, 63, dabbed at her eyes and her voice broke: "He was a hell of a nice guy."
Now, she waits, wondering if, and when, she will develop AIDS.
Ill health had plagued Bill Polikoff for years. As an infantryman in World War II, he had survived the infamous six-day, 60-mile Bataan death march of April, 1942, in which an estimated 10,000 American and Filipino soldiers died.
A POW in the Pacific for almost 3 1/2 years, he received his honorable discharge from the Army in 1946. His discharge papers note that he was suffering from malnutrition, and that he had a "deranged" and atrophied right knee after being hit by a pick ax wielded by a Japanese guard; he had also had episodes of malaria, a tropical ulcer, pleurisy, scurvy, dengue fever and beriberi.
Later, a promising career as an engineer was derailed by health problems. At the time of his death, he was getting 100% disability pay from the service, plus Social Security. That income, though modest, allowed the Polikoffs to buy a tract house in San Diego. They had looked forward to the retirement years, to occasional short trips and other small indulgences.
"You'd of thought he'd used up his bad breaks," she said. But the bypass surgery, which had promised so much hope, was to evolve into a nightmare.
Putting Off Surgery
Bill had been fearful of his surgery, so much so that he had put it off for years, despite having suffered a heart attack in 1963, despite worsening angina pain. Finally he agreed, buoyed by doctors' projections of "10 good years" ahead.
Although Bill was an outpatient at the VA hospital, because of staff scheduling problems doctors there sent him to UCSD Medical Center for a catheterization that determined the need for immediate surgery. The sextuple bypass, performed at UCSD on Friday, Jan. 13, 1984, went smoothly and when he was discharged his physical condition was listed as "good."
His Medicare billing included a $45 item for three pints of blood.
He never really recovered from the bypass, Dorothy said. There were problems--a negative drug reaction, ulcerated lesions--necessitating lengthy rehospitalization. When home, he would venture out once or twice a week, for an hour or two, and return exhausted.