June 1, 2007 — -- In an exclusive interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, tuberculosis patient Andrew Speaker said he never thought others were at risk for catching his deadly disease.
"I'm very sorry for any grief or pain that I have caused anyone," Speaker said from his isolation room in the National Jewish Hospital in Denver. "I think if people look at my life, that's not … not how I live my life."
Speaker, a 31-year-old lawyer from Atlanta, learned he had TB in January. In May, doctors realized his strain, known as XDR-TB, was extensively drug-resistant. He then boarded a commercial flight to Paris May 12, and returned from Europe 12 days later on a flight from Prague, Czech Republic, to Canada.
Speaker said he never thought he was sick enough to infect others. He felt fine two weeks ago, walking around, jogging and trying cases as usual. He told Sawyer he had a tape recording of a meeting with health officials that he said would confirm his view that it was OK to travel in his condition.
"I hope they understand, based on what I was told didn't think I was making that gamble," he said. "I truly believe that there is a misunderstanding of how we entered into all of this. I hope they understand that at every turn it was conveyed to me that my family, my wife, my daughter, no one was at risk. And that I was not contagious. And that I never would have put my family at risk and my daughter at risk."
Doctors say they told Speaker not to travel. Speaker said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health organizations advised him against travel but didn't stop him.
Speaker's father-in-law, Bob Cooksey, is a CDC microbiologist specializing in the spread of TB and other bacteria. He said only that he gave Speaker "fatherly advice" when he learned the young man had contracted the disease.
"Everyone knew. … The CDC knew, doctors knew, Kaiser knew. They said, 'We would prefer you not go on the trip,'" he said. "And that's when my father said, 'OK, are you saying because he's a risk to anybody or are you simply saying it to cover yourself?' And they said, 'We have to tell you that to cover ourselves, but he's not a risk.'"
Speaker said after the CDC called him in Rome and told him to cancel his commercial fight plans, it didn't offer him any help. Speaker says it would have cost $100,000 to fly back on a noncommercial airline. In effect, he said, the CDC was walking away from him and his chance for treatment at the TB facility in Denver.
"Before I left, it was made clear to me in order to fight this I had one shot and that was here," he said about his chances for survival. "I had one shot at this and if I didn't get right treatment, CDC sends testing out here, so they can pick the right drugs to mix, and if I was somewhere where they got it wrong, that was it, they blew my last shot."
Looking back, Speaker realizes he may have been able to raise the $100,000 to charter a flight home. He said he didn't because he didn't think he was a health risk to others.
"In hindsight you can try … say maybe I could have planned something out, maybe could have raised money," he said. "[But] understand at this whole time everyone told me I'm not contagious and no threat to anyone."
Speaker boarded a plane back to the United States because he feared he would die in Europe.
"We said, 'Let's get home and get to Denver,'" he said about his and his wife's decision to leave Europe. "Both of us worried if I turned myself [in] the next day that's it. It's very real that I could have died there. … People told me if I was anywhere but Denver, I'll die."
What happened was a result of confusion, panic and a desire to stay alive, but never to hurt strangers or his family, Speaker said. He hopes the TB tests of his fellow passengers come back negative, and he said he wants them to know he is sorry.
"I feel awful. I've lived in state of constant fear and anxiety. I'm exhausted, for a week now. And to think that someone else is now feeling that, I wouldn't want anyone to feel that way -- it's awful," he said. "I just hope they can forgive me and understand that I really believed [I] wasn't putting people at risk because that's what the people told me."