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A Phone Call Brought Good News to Me, but not to Everyone

Posted Aug 19 2009 5:19pm

In a previous post I revealed that I had been identified as part of an at-risk group made up of patients who had surgery at a big city hospital during a six-month span of time. Within that time frame a surgical tech, who is infected with hepatitis C, took multiple syringes of Phentanyl from anesthesia carts and replaced them with her used needles and syringes filled with saline. The tainted syringes were then used by unsuspecting anesthesiologists to medicate patients in the operating room.

Phentanyl is a powerful narcotic painkiller. Patients who needed the pain medication during surgery were given saline instead and, in the process, were exposed to the tech’s hepatitis C.

I am happy and relieved to report that my blood test was negative for hepatitis C. Twenty other people in the at-risk group are not as fortunate. That is the number of patients who have tested positive for the condition so far. Each case can be genetically linked to the scrub tech as the source of the infection.

This story has been big news around here since July 3rd. The newspapers have reported it under banner headlines and it has been the lead story on local newscasts for several days running. Even national news programs have covered it. It didn’t take long for ads related to class action lawsuits to begin airing on television.

Clues leading up to the full-blown investigation began turning up in late April when the state health department discovered that two individuals recently reported to the agency as being hepatitis C-positive had had surgery in the same hospital two days apart. Putting the pieces of the puzzle together was a slow process, complicated by a lab’s failure to send samples for genetic testing—an error that wasn’t discovered for two weeks, further delaying the process.

Another stumbling block was the fact that different agencies held key information about the tech and tests that were not shared due to circumstance, lack of communication or privacy laws. Meanwhile, the tech continued to work and expose more patients. In the end, it was a full two months before the situation and its far-reaching ramifications were made public.

As you can imagine, there’s enough criticism to go around, and then some. Questions abound. Why weren’t more drug safeguards in place? Why was a follow-up not conducted when the tech’s pre-employment blood screening revealed a positive hep C result? Why did the hospital (appear to) withhold the confirmation of the crisis for a few weeks? It is all very complicated. Yes, there were some oversights but, in most cases, the actions of agencies and institutions were dictated by regulations and laws. The public silence was unfortunate but necessary, according to one hospital spokesperson.

Are there more negative or positive aspects to privacy laws? I’m interested in your opinion. Please share it here.

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