After spending the past seven weeks in a hospital crib connected to a feeding tube and powerful drugs to treat his HIV infection, 3-month-old Rico Martinez Nagel finally went home Friday.
But the legal battle between his parents and a southern Minnesota county over custody of the boy and supervision of his medical care is far from over.
That won’t be decided until early next month, when a Mower County judge presides over a two-day bench trial to determine whether the county should continue to supervise his medical treatments or trust them to the care of his parents, Lindsey Nagel and John Martinez.
“We’re young parents, but I don’t think we’re unable to take care of our son,” Lindsey Nagel, 22, said Friday. “It just seems a lot like they don’t trust us. But they want us to trust them.”
While Rico’s legal case is only two months old, his story dates back 20 years, when his mother tested positive for HIV shortly after her parents adopted her from Romania. Lindsey Nagel received powerful anti-retroviral medication to treat her infection. But after 22 months of treatments that left the toddler sick and scrawny, her parents decided to stop them. They claim that she has been healthy ever since.
Fast forward to Dec. 19, when Lindsey gave birth to Rico at Methodist Hospital in Rochester. Hours later, Rico tested positive for HIV. Within days, he was receiving some of the same, but less potent, anti-retroviral treatments his mother endured to reduce the risk of AIDS.
He first went home Jan. 10 with promises from his parents that they would follow through with his treatments and scheduled appointments. But when they didn’t show up for two appointments the next week, county child protection officials obtained a court order to remove the baby from the family’s home in Brownsdale, about 45 minutes southwest of Rochester.
Rico had been in the hospital nearly full time since, while his family battled in court over his care.
“They are way overreaching,” Cheryl Nagel, Lindsey’s mother, said Friday of the county’s actions. “They are trying to ruin my daughter’s life. And I take it very personally.”
But county officials, who declined to comment for this story, alleged in their court petition that the boy was in need of protection services because he was medically neglected by his family.
In building their case, they spelled out several concerns, beyond missed appointments.
They said that during her pregnancy Lindsey Nagel refused recommendations from Mayo Clinic staff that she undergo treatments that could “lower the risk of transmission” of HIV to the fetus. Medical experts have said that those treatments are highly successful in reducing the chance that the virus is passed on to the unborn child.
Then after Rico’s birth, Lindsey and Martinez refused to have their son tested for HIV. They only relented, the petition said, when “they were told a refusal” would result in the boy being put in foster care.
The petition also cited the decision by Lindsey’s parents 20 years ago to discontinue giving her the anti-retroviral drug AZT.
Attached to the petition was a letter from W. Charles Huskins of the Mayo Clinic that stated that without anti-retroviral therapy, Rico “faces a significant risk of AIDS or death within 12 months.” With the therapy, “and regular medical care, most children have a healthy and relatively normal childhood,” the letter said.
The family tells a different version of events.
Lindsey Nagel testified at a court hearing in late January that she told a Mayo Clinic nurse at her first visit for her pregnancy in June 2012 that she was HIV positive. Although she admitted that she did not provide information in the initial written medical history that she was infected, she said her doctor also knew.
She also testified that she was never told about treatments while pregnant. She said it wasn’t until 15 minutes after Rico was born that the Mayo Clinic staff discussed treatment for Rico’s infection.
She and her fiancé later testified that they thought the appointments were optional and that they had planned to reschedule them. They also said they were trying to get a second opinion on treatment at that time, and at one point, they set out to drive to Seattle to see another physician before turning around in North Dakota and heading home after learning that the doctor was not a pediatrician.
Cheryl and Steve Nagel have said they believe the county’s action is based on their decision 20 years ago to take Lindsey off AZT.
“It was as if they decided to punish [the family] because we had the nerve to defy medical orders 20 years ago, even though our decision to do so saved our daughter’s life,” Cheryl Nagel wrote on Facebook and their “Save Rico” blog.
She wrote that after taking Lindsey off the drug in late 1992, her daughter immediately gained weight and “started thriving and growing.”
Back home again
In recent weeks, the Nagels have taken to social media to tell Rico’s story.
Steve Nagel recently posted an eight-minute video outlining the case history. In it, he replays a 1990s Twin Cities television report documenting their decision to stop treating Lindsey.
The family also taped a video of Mower County child protection officials taking Rico from his sobbing mother in January. Cheryl Nagel said Friday that the family thought the officials were showing up to verify that Rico’s parents were continuing with Rico’s treatments. They didn’t know that the baby would be taken away.
“We were shocked,” she said.
While a court ordered that Rico’s parents be allowed “unlimited” time with him while he was hospitalized, the family worried about his health. Initially, he was placed with a foster family, but was rushed to an emergency room when he wouldn’t take to a bottle for feeding.
All that was temporarily forgotten Friday night, as Rico was back home getting hugs and kisses from his parents and grandparents while sitting in his baby swing.
“He’s had a ball already,” Cheryl Nagel said. “We’re just thrilled.”