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Bacterial infection possible in open-heart surgery patients

Did you undergo an open-heart surgical procedure between Oct. 1, 2011 and July 24, 2015 at WellSpan York Hospital here in Pennsylvania? If so, you may have received notification that you are one of thousands of patients at an increased risk for contracting a potentially harmful infection. Other hospitals in the region experienced the same issue, such as Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

You may wonder why you received notification years after your procedure. The type of bacteria responsible for the infection, Non-tuberculous Mycobacterium (NTM), grows slowly. So far, WellSpan York Hospital reports that eight living patients (seven remained in active treatment as of June 12, 2017) and six deceased patients contracted a harmful infection from this bacterium at its hospital. Please note that there is no confirmation that the deceased patients died because of this infection.

What procedures put you at risk?

Simply saying "open-heart surgery" may not help you determine whether you are one of the individuals at risk. According to WellSpan, if you underwent one of the following procedures during the relevant time frame, you could be at risk:

  • Vascular graft
  • Tissue or mechanical heart valve implantation
  • Left ventricular assist device implantation

You are urged to undergo an examination to determine whether the bacteria is in your body, if you have not already.

How did this bacterium potentially get into your body?

During open-heart procedures, surgeons use a "heater-cooler" device to regulate your blood during surgery. The way that the machine used during the relevant time operated, bacteria could have developed, released with water vapor and entered into your open chest. The hospital emphasized that the bacteria never directly entered into patients' bodies.

Why did it take so long to warn patients?

As already mentioned, the bacterium in question takes a significant amount of time to develop. It could take years for it to affect your health. If you exhibit the following symptoms, it could relate to this bacterial exposure:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Heat, pus, pain or redness at incision site
  • Night sweats
  • Muscle pain
  • Joint pain

Because of the slow-growing nature of the bacteria, you could experience these symptoms years after the procedure. In addition, diagnosing the infection is problematic and could take years to find.

How did this happen?

At WellSpan, hospital personnel failed to strictly adhere to the manufacturer's cleaning recommendations. The manufacturer of the machines in question also had to clarify and add to its safety and cleaning protocols in order to eliminate, or at least limit, the potential growth of the bacteria. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration was still investigating the issue as of June and had already issued warnings.

These aren't the only hospitals with an issue

The potential for contracting a bacterial infection under these conditions could occur at any medical facility that uses heater-cooler devices. In addition, even if you only recently had an open-heart surgery procedure, you could be at risk. The facility may not yet realize that it has the same issue with its equipment. If you have concerns, you can ask your doctor to conduct an examination to determine whether the bacterium is present in your body.

Do you have legal recourse?

Possibly. Depending on the circumstances, the medical staff, the hospital and the manufacturer of the device could all potentially bear some legal liability for the harm done to you by the infection. Due to the complexity of these cases, it may not be wise to attempt to file a claim alone. If you wish to investigate this possibility, you may benefit from contacting a medical malpractice attorney. 

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