ST. LOUIS — Surgeries at St. Louis' Veterans Affairs medical center could resume next week after being abruptly halted over contamination concerns tied to stains and water spots found on some operating-room equipment, the center's director said Friday.
RimaAnn Nelson announced the shutdown Thursday at the John Cochran VA Medical Center, saying a regular inspection uncovered spots on surgical trays and water stains on at least one surgical instrument before any surgeries were performed the previous day.
Nelson said hospital officials on Friday continued to inspect and test the surgical unit's processes and equipment, canceling 35 non-emergency or elective surgical procedures. As of Friday afternoon, nine patients were to have their surgical procedures performed at local community hospitals at the VA medical center's expense.
Surgeries will remain halted "until we are confident that there are no problems with our processes or equipment," Nelson said in a statement. The hope is that surgeries can resume early next week.
The revelation of possible contamination drew furor from some federal lawmakers still unsettled about a sterilization scare that surfaced at the center just months earlier and the nagging shutdown since 2007 of major surgeries at a southern Illinois VA, part of the same regional VA network that includes the St. Louis site.
Last year, the VA notified 1,812 veterans who were treated at the St. Louis center's dental clinic from Feb. 1, 2009, through March 11, 2010, that they might have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C because of improperly sterilized dental equipment. They were urged to be tested for the diseases.
The VA announced in July that of 1,022 veterans who were tested and told of the results following the alert, two tested positive for hepatitis B and two for hepatitis C. The agency later said no known cases of disease were linked to the sterilization problem.
St. Louis VA medical facilities provide services for veterans in Missouri and Illinois.
"How many times does something have to happen before they fix this facility?" said U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, a St. Louis Democrat newly appointed to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, which held hearings on the dental situation at the St. Louis center last summer.
"Clearly the problems there go well beyond one department," Carnahan said, adding that "a full, top-to-bottom, independent review" of the St. Louis VA "needs to happen and it needs to happen now. The health and safety of our veterans is too important to wait."
Jim Strickland, a blogging VA watchdog and Army veteran who spent much of his adult life as a surgical technician, called the latest issues involving the St. Louis center "disgusting," saying news of contamination worries reflects a breach of "one of the most important jobs in the hospital."
"Is a water spot a dangerous thing in and of itself? Probably not. Is it an indicator there's a problem? Yes," said Strickland, the editor of VAWatchdogToday.org, saying water spots are anything but innocuous in an era when antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains known as "superbugs" draw ever-increasing notoriety.
"There are fundamentals that haven't changed, and cleaning surgical instruments is one of them. It's just not that hard," said Strickland, 62, of Bloomingdale, Ga. "When you know you're being scrutinized under a microscope, why in the world would you allow this to happen again unless you have no control over your department. It's phenomenal to me, breathtaking."
The St. Louis surgical shutdown is just the latest for the VA regionally. The VA medical center in southern Illinois' Marion has been under intense scrutiny since August 2007, when a surgeon resigned three days after a patient bled to death following gallbladder surgery. All inpatient surgeries were suspended there within a month, and the site's director, chief of staff, surgical chief and anesthesiologist were moved to other positions, placed on leave or quit.
Investigators later found at least nine deaths between October 2006 and March 2007 resulted from substandard care, and another 10 patients died after receiving questionable care that complicated their health.
It remains unclear when major surgeries at the Marion VA might resume.