AUSTIN, MINN. – The mother of a 4-month-boy with HIV vowed Tuesday to continue giving her son powerful antiretroviral drugs to fight the infection even though she fears they could harm him.
Lindsey Nagel, mother of Rico Martinez Nagel, testified in a child protection hearing in Mower County that as long as the drugs are part of a treatment plan spelled out by Mayo Clinic physicians, she will administer them to her son, who inherited the infection at birth from his mother.
But, as her own mother testified Monday, Lindsey Nagel also said that if she could find alternative treatments for her son and a legal way to take him off the drugs, she would do so.
“I want him to be healthy and thrive, and if I could legally remove him from medication, I would,” she said.
Her testimony came during the final day of a two-day bench trial before Mower County District Judge Fred Wellmann, who will decide within weeks whether county officials should take legal custody of the boy and continue to supervise his medical treatments or trust them to his mother and his father, John Martinez.
Rico, who tested positive for HIV within hours of his birth, lives with his parents and grandparents and is undergoing medical treatment at their home in Brownsdale, Minn., pending Wellmann’s decision.
The baby’s care became an issue in January when county officials obtained a court order to remove the boy — who was already undergoing treatments when he was discharged from a Rochester hospital that month — from the family’s home after his parents missed a medical appointment.
In building their case that the baby was medically neglected and could be in future danger, county officials have cited several concerns in court documents and through trial testimony, including the missed appointment, Lindsey Nagel’s apparent refusal to undergo prenatal treatments that could lower the risk of transmitting HIV to her fetus, and her initial refusal to have her son tested in the hours after his birth. They also have cited statements her parents have made in interviews, videos and online postings about the antiretroviral drug AZT, which they believe almost killed their daughter 20 years ago when she was diagnosed with HIV after being adopted from Romania.
In more than a half-hour on the witness stand Tuesday, Lindsey Nagel, 22, challenged all those concerns.
Under questioning from her attorneys, Scott Cody and Benjamin Tarshish, she testified that she told a Mayo Clinic nurse at her first prenatal visit last year that she had already tested positive for HIV and didn’t need to be tested again. She said she made no attempt to hide that fact, adding that the clinic had medical records on her dating to 1994, when her parents took her there to seek an alternative treatment for the infection.
She also said she was never told of prenatal treatments while pregnant. “If offered, I would have thought about it and most likely would have done it,” she testified.
Nagel said the first sign of trouble with the county came within an hour of Rico’s birth Dec. 19, when her hospital room filled with physicians, social workers and attorneys pushing her to consent to have the baby tested for HIV. She said she assumed Rico was infected, but adamantly refused at that moment to have him tested.
“They just started questioning me right away after I’d just given birth, and all I want to do is enjoy my son,” she said. Later that day, the doctors, lawyers and social workers returned and told her if she didn’t consent, her son would be taken from her and she’d be charged with child endangerment.
She consented after talking with her father, who told her that the bottom line was “we all want Rico in our home.”
“I carried him for nine months and the only place I wanted him to be was in my arms,” she said, fighting back tears. “It scared me.”
Within two weeks, Rico was put on antiretroviral treatments, including AZT, which Nagel was on as a tot and which her parents believe almost killed her before they took her off it. “From my history, I knew it wasn’t something I wanted for my son,” she said.
Doctors took the boy off AZT in early March, before he returned home, because of concerns it was causing him to become anemic. Nagel said that despite her worries about the other drugs, she and Martinez haven’t missed administering treatments in all the time Rico has been in their care.
As for the Jan. 16 nutritional appointment with Mayo doctors that Nagel and Martinez missed, both testified that they called the clinic to cancel the appointment and reschedule.
“Everything is based on suspicion,” Martinez said after the hearing, of the county’s concerns. “The only time we really said no was [the morning Rico was born], when we really didn’t have time to talk.”
Steve Nagel testified Tuesday that despite his concerns about AZT, he would not try to persuade his daughter and future son-in-law to stop administering antiretroviral drugs to Rico as long as they are required. Doing so, he said, would run the risk of losing legal custody of Rico to the county once again.
Still, officials worry that the grandparents may press the young parents to stop treatments if Wellmann says county supervision is no longer required. “I believe the accumulation [of information in] the videos speaks to potential noncompliance going forward,” said Lindsay Brekke, a Mower County Health and Human Services supervisor.
Wellmann is expected to decide the issue within the month. Until then, Rico will remain with his family, with his medical treatments supervised by county officials.