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Surgery patients put at risk by operating-room 'water hazard'

Imagine opening your mailbox today and getting a letter that stops you in your tracks.

It says that a heart surgery you had years ago — one you thought you’d put in your rearview mirror — may have left you with a serious infection.

One you’ve never realized you had, but that has been wrecking your health ever since.

Believe it or not, that’s the exact letter that more than 1,300 people just got from York Hospital in Pennsylvania.

It turns out that a piece of medical equipment used during open-heart surgeries can expose you to a deadly, slow-growing bacteria.

One that can torture you for years before it kills you.

And the damage isn’t limited to Pennsylvania. This equipment is being used right now in hospitals all across America — and it may have already put you or someone you love in harm’s way.

A deadly mist
For those who had open-heart surgery at York Hospital, receiving a letter saying they might have acquired a dangerous infection years ago must be the shock of a lifetime.

What makes it especially scary is that the bacterium they may have been exposed to, called nontuberculous mycobacterium (or NTM), can take a long time to develop into an infection.

Patients can suffer from symptoms like fevers and joint pain for years before it’s diagnosed — if it’s ever diagnosed at all.

And York Hospital officials believe four people may have already died from NTM infections.

The danger comes from a piece of equipment used in an operating room called a heater-cooler device. It’s filled with water and is used to control your body temperature during surgery.

The only problem? These heater-cooler devices can harbor NTM and other bacteria, and the water can become aerosolized during surgery.

That means everyone in the operating room can scrub and sanitize until the cows come home, but they still might not be able to stop the bacteria from landing on your incision site.

Or even inside you.

Doctors at York Hospital say they became aware of the danger after a study out of Europe warned of the risks of heater-cooler devices. They started tracking down cases of known infections and even got the CDC involved.

Now everybody’s patting themselves on the back for having uncovered a “previously unknown” surgery risk.

Well, that’s not 100 percent true. In fact, it’s not even a little true.

Because heater-cooler devices have been suspected of spreading infections for at least the last six years.

Another type of device, one called a warming-cooling blanket, has been the subject of numerous studies about how it can spread bacteria. And the patients who developed infections due to these “blankets” weren’t having open-heart surgery, but knee and hip replacements.

While the equipment may be different, the way they can spread all kinds of bacteria in the operating room isn’t. Even the FDA, when it issued an alert last month, said that all heater-cooler devices are potentially dangerous.

But now that the FDA and CDC have issued warnings to hospitals across the country about this risk, there is no excuse for them not to know about it. And while it should be a big issue for every single health-care facility, there are still some precautions you need to take.

  1. If you’re scheduled for any kind of surgery, ask if one of these heater-cooler devices will be used in the operating room.
  2. If so, speak with a hospital official about what precautions have been taken to reduce the risk of infection. York Hospital replaced all of its devices with new equipment this summer. And the FDA issued a full list of recommended instructions on cleaning and using them properly.
  3. If those in charge at your hospital claim they don’t know about the problem, or dismiss your concerns as being overly cautious, don’t get embarrassed or stop asking questions. This can be a matter of life and death.

And if you’ve had surgery during the past few years and have any symptoms of an ongoing infection, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible.

The CDC says to watch for telltale signs such as a fever, pain, redness, heat or pus at the surgical site, as well as night sweats, joint and muscle pain and fatigue.

Sources:

“Bacterial infection suspected in deaths of four at Pennsylvania hospital” Julia Talanova, October 27, 2015, CNN, cnn.com

“WellSpan York Hospital notifies open-heart surgery patients of possible infection risk” October 26, 2015, wellspan.org