VA halts surgery amid sterilization problems

10:59 PM, Feb 3, 2011   |    comments
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By Leisa Zigman, I-Team Reporter

St. Louis, MO (KSDK) - Once again, sterilization practices at the John Cochran VA Medical Center in St. Louis are under fire. NewsChannel 5's I-Team has confirmed all operating rooms have been shut down and all surgeries cancelled due to possible contamination of equipment.

RimaAnn O. Nelson, medical director for the VA Medical Center, issued a statement confirming the allegations.

"The medical center cancelled surgeries February 2 after a regular inspection of surgical instrument trays noted spots on the trays and water stains on at least one surgical instrument," Nelson said. "These concerns were caught before any patients were operated on, and this serves as an example of the medical center's heightened patient precaution systems at work."

This latest issue magnifies other unsafe sterilization problems that gained national attention this summer.  In July, the VA sent letters to 1,800 veterans informing them they may have been exposed to HIV and Hepatitis at its dental clinic.

"I'm just appalled," said Earlene Johnson, a former employee at VA Medical Center.

She's not at all surprised.  She began preaching about problems at the John Cochran VA Medical Center, around the same time she was let go.

"I said this in the very beginning, it's going to happen and it's going to continue to happen," Johnson said.  "You know something needs to be done about john cochran hospital."

Missouri Congressman Russ Carnahan has been highly critical of management at the facility saying there are systemic problems that are not being addressed. The I-Team informed Rep. Carnahan of the surgery shut down this afternoon.

"I'm angry for our veterans. They have earned better care. We've promised them better care. When we hear the stories, we know there's a problem here," said Carnahan. "How many times do we have to hear the stories about veterans getting substandard care or being put at risk? Enough is enough."

Congressman John Shimkus (R-Illinois) said he was extremely disappointed in the Veterans Affairs Department.

"Last year, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a special hearing in St. Louis.  Former Chairman Filner and current Chairman Miller both attended.  Unfortunately, I believe another hearing is not only necessary in St. Louis, but in Washington," Shimkus said.

Eight to ten surgeries are performed at the center each day. Any veteran needing emergency surgery will be transported to a private hospital. The spokesperson had no idea when surgeries would resume.

"While the situation was quickly identified, these problems must stop," said Sen. Claire McCaskill.  "I'm going fight to hold whoever is responsible accountable.  Our veterans deserve nothing but the best."

"I think somebody needs to be up on this. Because I'm supposed to have surgery soon and I don't want to go through nothing like that," said veteran Kevin McVay. "Seriously, somebody needs to be overseeing this and make sure it's done properly."

"I live by the theory that you do it the right way all the time. And what we're finding out is it's not happening," said veteran Samuel Powell.

Below is the full statement from Cochran's medical director:

"At John Cochran VA Medical Center, our paramount concern is the safety of the Veterans we serve. The medical center cancelled surgeries February 2 after a regular inspection of surgical instrument trays noted spots on the trays and water stains on at least one surgical instrument. These concerns were caught before any patients were operated on, and this serves as an example of the medical center's heightened patient precaution systems at work. Medical center leadership has inspected all other surgical materials and has had various service vendors at the facility today inspecting and testing Surgical Processing and Distribution equipment to eliminate any potential problems. VA will work with all affected Veterans to reschedule surgical appointments or arrange for alternate care in any urgent cases."

-RimaAnn O. Nelson, RN, MPH/HAS
Medical Center Director

KSDK

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