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Veteran's Spirit Undaunted by Loss

August 1998

In 1985, Tom "Gator" Swann was told by his doctors that he wouldn't live another 18 months.

After suffering from herpes, KS, neuropathy, night sweats, diarrhea, anemia and blurred vision that year, Swann, a resident of Port Hueneme, began experiencing problems with vision in his left eye.

In the fall of 1995, his Blue Cross of California primary care physician referred him to an opthalmologist on the plan who specialized in glaucoma. After a cursory exam, the specialist told Swann that he had asked his primary care doctor to refrain from referring AIDS patients to him. He also declined to set a follow-up appointment. Although his CD4 count was less than 50, neither physician took steps to prevent the onset of CMV.

In frustration and out of desperation, Swann enrolled in a CMV drug study at the UCLA Medical Center. Although he eventually became blind in his left eye, the medicine he received from UCLA stabilized the vision in his right eye. Swann concluded that he had lost his vision as a result of incompetence and prejudice of the two doctors; eventually he met a physician-lawyer, Mark Ravis, M.D., J.D., who was willing to take on the difficult case in conservative Ventura County. Swann also sued his HMO for refusing to pay for appropriate AIDS-related medical treatment that the doctors were unable or unwilling to provide.


An 80-minute verdict

After completion of six days in the courtroom marked by numerous irregularities, the jury spent 80 minutes in the jury room before ruling against Swann. Defense attorneys had continually harangued the jury, calling into question Swann's activities in support of gay rights and the rights of people with AIDS.

According to Swann, Judge John Hunter seemed insensitive and prejudiced against the plaintiff as well.

After the trial, Swann and his family and friends were dissapointed and angry.

Arguing that justice was not served in this case, Swann intends to request a review by the Sexual Orientation Fairness Subcommittee of the California Judicial Council's Access and Fairness Advisory Committee. "I continue to speak out because I want other people who find themselves in similar situations to know what they may experience if they go to court -- to be aware of the pitfalls," said Swann.

Despite the loss, Swann is convinced that he was right to sue the doctors.

"AIDS is unique and it is really necessary to refer people with AIDS to specialists," said Swann. The case generated wide publicity and Swann received heartfelt support from the local gay and lesbian community. He has learned that at least two other Ventura County AIDS patients enrolled with Blue Cross have been referred to appropriate health care providers as a result of the legal action he initiated.

In his other case, Swann said that he was vindicated when Blue Cross agreed to settle his claim for compensation.

Swann's primary care physician had consistently denied that he had authorized specialized care that had been provided by the Jules Stein Eye Clinic and Dr. Gail M. Simpson of the Ventura County AIDS Clinic, and for over a year the HMO had refused to cover his associated medical expenses that amounted to over $15,000. In the meantime, the accounts had been referred to collection agencies, impacting Swann's credit. Finally, at the preliminary hearing, his physician admitted that he had authorized the services and the checks were issued.

Additionally, Blue Cross agreed to provide blanket authorization for Swann to bypass his primary care physician and continue to receive specialized care from Dr. Simpson and other specialists to whom she might refer him.

Swann's legal and health problems never dissuaded him from his efforts to support civil rights for gays and people with HIV and AIDS.

After successfully suing the Navy in a 1994 case that guaranteed protection to civilian employees based on sexual orientation, Swann has continued speaking out for lifting the ban on gays in the military. An active member of the Stonewall Democratic Club, Swann has testified before a Governor's Task Force in Sacramento urging improved access to specialists by people with AIDS enrolled in HMOs. His testimony on this "vulnerable population" was quoted in the final report last fall.

During the recent primary campaign, Swann spoke to the Democratic gubernatorial candidates at the Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles to explain his ordeal and request support for legislation to ensure access to specialists.

During a visit to Washington, D.C., Swann lost most of the remaining vision in his right eye. Now legally blind, he uses a white cane and a powerful magnifier to allow him to partially correct his 20/400 vision.

The additional vision loss does not prevent Swann from continuing to participate in public appearances. As a veteran sergeant, Swann was recruited to march in the gay pride parade in Chicago in June, carrying the U.S. Marine Corps flag.

How did he do it? "I was just able to see the feet of the man carrying Old Glory to my right, and when the cadence began I found that I was able to keep step throughout the two-mile parade," Swann explained. "Afterwards, many people came up to express their admiration for challenging the heat and my disability to complete the route."

To learn how to stay active in spite of his blindness, Swann has been attending classes at the Braille Institute's Independent Living Center.

He has received a warm welcome by staff and fellow classmates, and was asked to report on his successful trip to Chicago. He is currently the only student there with AIDS, but the institute hopes the word will go out that services are offered to all blind people without regard to cause.

"They don't care why I'm blind, and the classes have been very useful," he said. "Also, the staff plan to assist me in applying for grants for various seeing aids."

Except for his vision, Swann has seen a dramatic response to recent drug therapy. His viral load continues to be undetectable, and he is free of opportunistic infections. And with his legal matters behind him, Swann plans to complete his book about his fight with the Navy.

"The adaptive technology supplied by the Braille Institute has enabled me to continue with this project," he said. "I have written 300 pages so far, and I have about 100 pages to go.

"I don't type very fast, but I have time, so I'll definitely finish it."

He also intends to renew his insurance license. If his health permits, he hopes to return to work.

This article has been reprinted at The Body with the permission of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA).

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
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