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Las Vegas Doctor, Dipak Desai, Sentenced To Life In Prison After Infecting Nine People With Hepatitis C

stomach endoscopy
Dipak Desai performed endoscopies by inserting tubes with cameras into bodies of his patients in order to investigate symptoms. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Dipak Desai, a former Las Vegas doctor who ran an endoscopy clinic, has been sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty of 27 criminal counts, including second-degree murder, for infecting nine patients with hepatitis C.

Desai and his former nurse-anesthetist Ronald Lakeman allegedly re-used syringes and practiced unsafe injections in their clinic, placing speed as a priority over sanitation in the largest gastroenterology practice in town. Their clinic reportedly raked in large sums of money. Health investigators believe that vials were contaminated with hepatitis C from two source patients at some point in 2007, which were then injected into subsequent patients and had potentially placed hundreds at risk. 9 people were infected from his clinic, and two have since died.

Desai's practice of endoscopy involved inserting tubes with cameras attached into patients’ bodies to gain a better view of organs. Endoscopies are used to investigate symptoms and to see what is going on inside the body more clearly. Desai was also found guilty of insurance fraud, negligence resulting in substantial bodily harm, and misdemeanor counts of theft. Though Desai's assistant, Lakeman, was found guilty of 16 out of 27 charges placed against him, he was not found guilty of a murder conviction.

“His concern was not for the patients themselves,” Clark County District Attorney Steven Wolfson said in court. “Rather it was making as much money as he possibly could.”

Lives Affected By Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is caused by a virus leading to inflammation of the liver, and can be spread if the blood of an infected person enters another person's body. Exposure typically occurs through shared needles or open wounds, according to the NIH, but cannot be spread through common contact like kissing, hugging or sharing drinks.

People infected with the virus often don't have symptoms, but those with chronic hepatitis C can experience liver scarring – cirrhosis. Some of the symptoms that do occur with the infection include abdominal swelling, dark urine, fatigue, fever, jaundice, nausea, and a loss of appetite. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C, but there are ways to be treated; some common medicines fight the virus and reduce the risk for cirrhosis and liver cancer.

One of the first victims whose hepatitis C infection was traced back to Desai’s clinic was Rodolfo “Rudy” Meana, who later died from the virus. “My dad told us when we were growing up that it was so important to be happy,” Meana’s daughter, Marjorie Meana-Strong, told the Las Vegas Review Journal. “And we want to do that.” Her husband added that Meana was never bitter about his infection from the contaminated clinic, but rather saw it as “something he had to deal with.”

Consequences For Doctors

“There’s no question that what he did hurt all doctors here,” Dr. Dale Carrison, 73, told the Las Vegas Review Journal, referring to the Las Vegas medical world. “Unfortunately, people tend to look at what one doctor did and think all doctors act that way. I’ve heard them talk. But we have some great doctors here, and I can tell you they’re not acting like he did.”

Other doctors are worried that patients will now be afraid to undergo colonoscopies, which are used to identify colon cancer and can save lives. “I still have people ask me to this day whether colonoscopies are safe here and if we’re cleaning the scopes,” Dr. Joseph Thornton told the Las Vegas Review Journal. “Ordinarily, if you have a crisis in your community, people forget pretty soon. But this has been going on in the news longer than anything I can remember.”

Desai, who suffered several strokes while on trial, had had his medical license revoked and his practices closed. “When a trust that a patient places in his or her physician is betrayed, I don’t think there is a greater betrayal in our society,” Clark County District Judge Valerie Adair said in sentencing Desai.

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