TB Man Tells His Side of the Story

Andrew Speaker, the 31-year-old personal-injury lawyer from Atlanta, wants the world to know he's being unfairly criticized for eluding health and security officials and putting planeloads of people at risk when he flew to Europe to get married last month-despite being told he carried an often deadly, drug-resistant form of tuberculosis. No longer America's top medical fugitive, Speaker, who is now being treated under guard in a Denver hospital, is the first person to be quarantined by the federal government since 1963. On Friday evening, he spoke to NEWSWEEK's Eve Conant. During the conversation, Speaker had to take several breaks to take medication.

NEWSWEEK: How are you feeling right now?
Andrew Speaker:
I have to warn you, I'm a bit gun-shy right now. Every time I turn on the news there's something horrible on about me. All this condemnation. I just got off the IV, but I'm feeling OK. I think people have a misconception about me.

Let's start for a moment with how this all started.
I banged my side, I was just messing around with friends, and my left side really hurt and it was hard to breathe. I went in and got an X-ray and they said it was a bruise, but that they noticed a hazy area on the upper right side of my lung and that it looked like TB. I felt, and I feel perfectly fine. I was eventually told I tested positive for TB but that I was asymptomatic. The whole time I totally cooperated with every doctor visit, everything. I went and got MRIs and when Fulton County [Ga.] officials called me up to report to them I canceled all my appointments that day and went right in. This was important to me. By the end of April I'd been poked and prodded and MRI'd and bloodtested God knows how many times. Every sputum test smear was negative. No one ever said, "Wear a mask" or "don't be with your family." Yes, they started finding out I was drug resistant, but that doesn't make me any more contagious.

What exactly were you told on May 10, when Fulton County officials held a meeting with you? And who else was with you then?
My doctor was there, the county officials were there, so was my father-in-law and my wife.

Your father-in-law, the TB specialist?
Yes, but he's not an M.D., he's a Ph.D. His job is not to treat people with TB. When it came time to ask what treatment was available and what to do, he wasn't the one to ask. Everyone seems to want to blame him....

So what were you told?
They said I was multi-drug resistant. I wanted to stay in Atlanta for treatment but they convinced me that with all the toxicity of the drugs and since there weren't that many drugs left for me I should go to Denver, that it was my best chance of living through this. I asked: "Am I any more contagious?" They said I was no more contagious at that point than I had been before, that my smear tests were negative, that I was asymptomatic. Did they say stay away from my family? No. And everyone knew about my wedding, it had been planned for months.

They knew you were leaving on May 14, but they didn't know you would take off early. Didn't they also expressly tell you that you should not be flying?
They told me it would take two to three weeks to figure out which drugs I should be on and to secure me a bed in Denver. No one ever mentioned the words "quarantine" or "isolation." They said "we'd prefer you not to fly. My dad asked: "So if he's not a risk and not contagious is it that you prefer he don't go because he's a threat or because you want to cover yourselves?" They said "No. We have to say that to cover ourselves. He's not a threat to anyone." So I wasn't told that there was little risk, I was told there was no risk. So I figured if it would take three weeks anyway, I'm not a risk and I can walk all around Atlanta, then why not go on my honeymoon?

Your dad taped the meeting. Why? Were you worried it might come to this?
After 20 years in the military and as an attorney he doesn't even like to do anything by phone, it's always in writing or recorded. He recorded it on a Palm Treo.

But they really did not want you to fly, they made that clear.
There's a perception that I haphazardly put people at risk, it's not true. I really got the sense they were saying that just to cover themselves. People seem to think we're these superwealthy travelers. But we spent everything we had on what was really a cheap wedding—we figured instead of spending $5,000 on flowers we'd actually go somewhere and see things. We got married on the balcony of a restaurant in Greece and then walked into the restaurant where there was a table for just 12 of us.

Did you leave for Europe early to avoid health officials?
Listen, I just had news that I'd be in for a hell of a long treatment. I wasn't sleeping and I was stressed out. My wife said, "Honey, why don't you just go, you'll feel better."

The CDC says they reached out to you while you were in Rome and told you not to fly, yet you flew anyway. We need to hear exactly what the CDC told you.
First of all, the CDC said they didn't know I was going to Europe. That is a lie. There was a doctor from the CDC at Fulton County and I told him I was going. There was a conversation going on between everyone and for everyone to pretend they didn't know is a lie. Maybe the top people didn't know, but it's not my job to go to the CDC and tell the top people what's going on. So maybe they just dropped the ball before I left, I don't know.

But you left early, before anyone could tell you it was this type of TB. You changed your plans on them.
I never got the letter they tried to send, but from what I understand, even [in the letter] they never said I was a threat to my wife or others. They've worked everyone into a frenzy that I was some big threat. Do you think that my dad and her dad, sitting in that room-if I had been told I was a risk, do you think they'd let me be around their wives and sisters and children?

Let's go back to the CDC call in Rome, what did they tell you?
They didn't call us. We called [my wife] Sarah's dad who told us Dr. David Kim from the CDC was trying to reach us. So we called him from a pay phone after dinner. That's when he said it was extremely drug-resistant TB and that we need to come home. He told us to cancel the rest of our trip. He said he'd be in meetings the next day to figure out our travel arrangements and to call him at 1 p.m. his time, which would have been 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. our time. So we didn't get onto our train to Florence and we booked another night at the hotel and sat around waiting to call him. It never crossed our minds they wouldn't get us home.

What did both of you say in the second call?
We tried him numerous times. During the day we talked to my dad who said Kim had told him "the only way to send your son home is raise money for a private flight." Like we have $100,000 on hand. Apparently Kim just said "so?" When I called Kim he says "we're not comfortable putting you on a flight and we're not comfortable putting you on a ship. We checked the CDC plane and there's no funding from the CDC to go and get private individuals. I've been in conference calls all day and your only way home is a private ambulatory flight that might cost up to $140,000." So my wife gets on the phone and she says "my father has worked at the CDC for 30 years and you knew we were coming here and now you're just going to leave us here!" And Dr. Kim said "that's the final decision." So if they were working to get us out of there they sure didn't tell Dr. Kim. At one point he suggested we call the U.S. consulate.

But you had been very clearly warned not to fly. They weren't abandoning you—you had been told not to leave in the first place.
They told me they'd prefer me not to fly. People always want to cover themselves. But I was told I was not a risk. Now, two weeks later I'm in quarantine, but what has changed? They knew I was multi-drug resistant before I left and that if I didn't go to Denver it could kill me. They knew it was a serious form back then. If it's their job to protect the public, shouldn't they have at least told me to stay away from my family? No, they said I was not a threat. Then Kim told me that he wanted me to turn myself in to an Italian hospital. I said, 'You want me to turn myself in to an Italian hospital until I can raise $140,000? You knew I was coming here and now you abandoned me." Also, people get this impression that I'm coughing up blood, which isn't true ... So I asked him if it was true treatment could take up to two years, and he said, "yes." I said: "What has changed?" He didn't have anything to say to that. So here I am, with Italian hospital and police authorities coming the next morning, he told me, to put me into isolation the next day. It's 11 p.m. in a hotel room and I'm feeling fine. He ends the conversation with "I know you're stressed out so why don't you go outside and get some air and something to eat." So here I am—some deadly threat.

But the concern is not you walking around outside, it's being enclosed in an airline, which was what was expressed to you.
No, that's just what they're saying now.

So what made you decide to run for it?
It's 11 at night and we're sitting in the hotel room. I can either get locked up or I can get home and get treated. I was clearly told I was not a threat to anyone. But now people are sending me hate mail like, "I hope you die or I hope your treatment is painful and as long as possible. You're a terrorist who needs to be eradicated." I'm a good person. I've tried to live a good life. I would never intentionally put people at risk.

But on a plane you are at risk to others.
But nothing's changed. I'm still testing like I did before, in fact, my X-rays at Bellvue [the New York City hospital where he was first isolated] are better than before I left.

How did you figure out the way to leave Italy? Obviously you knew you were in trouble, otherwise why would you choose Canada?
We just went downstairs and booked tickets online. We were concerned, I think we might have been told, that our passports were flagged or might be taken away from us so we figured Canada would be a safer bet. We were frantic. We were scared out of our minds. The options we were faced with seemed ludicrous.

There was an alert to look out for you at the border. What did you say to them at the border crossing?
The first I heard of an alert was on the news. We were just asked where we were headed. We said Atlanta. It was all just pleasantries. Once we got over the line there were messages from the CDC and a few calls back and forth. It was very much a voluntary exchange.

There's been talk that your marriage license isn't valid, do you know anything about this?
I know we went over and had a ceremony and that local officials [in Greece] had me sign all these documents. I know we exchanged rings. If there's some loophole and the local mayor didn't check some box, I don't know. Heck, we've even got the marriage pictures.

Any idea where you could have picked this up?
I spend five weeks in Vietnam as ambassador of the Rotary Club around this time last year. We went to hospitals to watch cleft-palate operations, we passed out rice, we went to orphanages. That's one of the possibilities, but we can't really nail it down.

Any last thing you'd like to say?
I'm just truly sorry if I've caused anyone to be scared or worried. I pray to God that everyone will be fine.

Join the Discussion