After undergoing survery at a Chicago hospital to fix a broken ankle, Jeanine Thomas almost lost her leg.
The Willowbrook resident was pumped up with antibiotics to stem an infection that turned out to be the dangerous MRSA strain of penicillin-resistant staph. It was embedded in her bone marrow.
Doctors, she says, never told her that she was ill with such violent bacteria. She theorizes she was sickened by microbes hidden on surgical tools used to fix her ankle.
The issue was underscored this week after two patients at Roseland Community Hospital died after being infected with acinetobactor, a common bacteria found on skin, and in dirt and water.
Hospital officials say two elderly patients, both suffering from acinetobactor, were residents at the same nursing home, and were infected with the bacteria prior to their admittance to the hospital.
One of those patients died. Another patient contracted the bacteria and also died, says Sharon Thurman, Roseland’s director of external affairs.
A prevalent problem
Thomas, now an FDA consultant on bacteria in hospitals, says the organisms are everywhere.
“And they don’t want you to know about it.”
The prevalence of dangerous bacteria at hospitals is a key issue for Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Union’s Stop Hospital Infections campaign. She has lobbied for public reporting of bacteria incidents in about 25 states, and says Illinois was the first state to enact public reporting of bacteria infections.
“All this bacteria is everywhere,” she says. “It’s probably present in a lot of health care settings. It’s probably there. It’s probably around hospitals, around the nursing home. One of the things that’s important is that there’s disinfecting going on at the hospitals, and that doesn’t always happen. And that’s one of the reasons this bacteria causes so much trouble.”
The Illinois Hospital Association concluded in a recent report that incidents of MRSA in Illinois hospitals were on the rise – 19,428 cases through September 2008 compared to 7,845 during that period in 2007. However, the report said only about 5 percent contracted MRSA during a hospital stay.
Thurman says bacterial infections are a common problem, despite the efforts of hospital staff. Roseland Community Hospital has two infection control specialists on staff, she says.
“It’s not rare,” she says. Acinetobactor, which infected seven people at Roseland Hospital between January 26 and February 19, is “common for nursing home patients, for patients who have been intubated.”
The infected patients that died earlier this week at Roseland both suffered from numerous illnesses, Thurman says, making it difficult to determine if the bacteria contributed to their deaths.
Following the outbreak at Roseland, Thurman says the Chicag o Department of Public Health launched an investigation, while infection control specialists at the hospital disinfected the ICU and ensured the bacteria didn’t spread to other wings of the hospital.
“We are a community-based hospital, and our mission is to help people stay well,” she says. “There are occasions where infections may occur, not only at Roseland, but (also at) other hospitals. We do everything we can to minimize the occurrence of that.”
More education needed
That’s an important step, says Thomas, but more needs to be done in hospitals to stem the spread of dangerous bacteria.
“Health care workers wear their scrubs to the hospital, home, the grocery store, the day care center,” she says. All this leads to the spread of bacteria to the community.
There needs to be more education about how bacteria are spread, Thomas says.
“Hospitals are toxic waste dumps. It’s everywhere. On surfaces; there’s a lack of sanitizing, housekeeping, decontaminating areas. And schools, they certainly need to clean,” she says. “There needs to be a whole reeducation for hand hygiene in schools, and certainly in hospitals.”
Hand hygiene is a building block for slowing the spread of bacteria, McGiffert says
“There are a lot of things hospitals can do. Every hospital has infection prevention politics that they probably aren’t following all the time,” such as hand-washing, she says. But she points to studies that note medical workers wash their hands only about 50 percent of the time.
Patients shouldn’t be afraid to ask medical workers to wash their hands or practice other hygienic methods, McGiffert says.
“If you’re going in for surgery, you should ask your surgeon what he or she is going to do to prevent infection,” she says.
While public health and hospital officials were working to contain the outbreak at the hospital, the Chicago Department of Public Health and Chicago Public Schools worked to identify how two people at Ebinger School, 7350 W. Pratt, were infected with the incurable MRSA.
The health department did not respond to requests for comment.
Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17