After a misdiagnosis of cancer when she was 22, Jennifer Rufer underwent debilitating chemotherapy and a hysterectomy that she did not need.
Though Rufer — who won a $16 million lawsuit against the hospital where she was treated and Abbott Laboratories, the company that makes the pregnancy test on which her initial diagnosis was based — will never live the life she imagined as a mother, her story was shared with millions of viewers on PrimeTime.
"If I could save one person from having to go through what I went through," says Rufer, "then it would be worth it to me."
And she has, according to at least two of the women who saw her story.
Saving Other Women
"Jennifer's story saved my life," says Michele Kachurak, whose initial cancer diagnosis was based on months of elevated HCG levels, a hormone that is elevated when a woman is pregnant, but also when there may be signs of a rare form of cancer.
"I got my fight back," says Kachurak, who was in her seventh month of chemotherapy when she saw Rufer's story. "I started pestering my doctors immediately after seeing Jennifer. I swore, I knew, I just knew I was fine."
So Kachurak sought another opinion at Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York. Doctors there now believe she never had cancer.
The ABCNEWS.com report on Rufer's story helped Sherri Bradford-Royle avoid undergoing potentially catastrophic medical procedures.
"That could have been me," says Bradford-Royle, a stay-at-home mom in Michigan who was about to start weekly chemotherapy. "Who knows what my doctors would have said would be the next step?"
She says that thanks to Rufer, "I have my life back."
High HCG Level
Rufer's ordeal began when she went to the doctor because of irregular bleeding. The doctor took a blood sample for the Axsym BHCG routine pregnancy test, one of the most common blood pregnancy tests in the country, made by Abbott Laboratories, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world.
The test results came back positive, showing Rufer was pregnant. But her doctor could find no fetus. Additional Axsym pregnancy tests came back positive for Rufer, and still, there was no indication of a pregancy.
When a woman is pregnant, she produces high levels of a hormone called beta human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG. But if there is no fetus, the elevated HCG levels can be a sign of a rare form of cancer called a gestational trophoblastic tumor. If untreated, it can spread rapidly and kill. If treated early with chemotherapy, it is highly curable. In fact, early treatment is so important that doctors sometimes order chemotherapy even if there is no evidence of a tumor.
Rufer was referred to a cancer specialist at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle for more extensive tests. Though scans showed no sign of a tumor, her HCG level continued to be alarmingly high. Doctors diagnosed her with cancer, and she began chemotherapy immediately.
Her doctors say they had complete confidence in the HCG test results. "When you're managing the patient, using a test you've used before for years and years," says Dr. Steven Gabbe, who was then the chief of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington Medical Center, where Rufer was treated, "you just don't question the test, especially given the patient's course."