Following a deadly outbreak of Legionella at the UW Medical Center (UWMC), Victoria Martin, a previously unnamed patient at the hospital, has stepped forward and filed a legal claim against the hospital.

The tort claim alleges negligence on the part of the center in allowing immunocompromised patients to be exposed to the bacteria through the water supply and contaminated surgical equipment. Martin is seeking financial compensation.

A total of five patients who had been treated in the Cascade Tower have been found to be infected with the bacteria, including two who died.

An ice machine, a sink, and all nine of the heater/cooler units used to regulate blood temperature during cardiac surgery tested positive for Legionella, according to UWMC.

The cause of death for the deceased patients was not Legionnaires’ disease, though that has not been ruled out of playing a part, according to the UWMC.

In reaction to the discovery of Legionella in the Cascade Tower water supply, UWMC initiated an overnight hyper-chlorination disinfection process, in which the chlorine concentration of the infected water supply is brought to toxic levels to kill the bacteria then lowered back to safe drinking levels.

No further Legionella exposures have been traced to the water supply since the Sept. 19-20 disinfection, according to UWMC. 

Martin, of Vancouver, Wash., age 32, suffered total heart failure at the age of 21. Two years ago she began to use an artificial heart pump. Later, she became eligible for a heart transplant, according to her law firm.

She underwent a successful heart transplant at UWMC on Aug. 8. As a part of the transplant procedure, she was placed on a regimen of immunosuppressant drugs, leaving her immune system weak and vulnerable to the Legionella bacterium, which is otherwise not considered a health threat.

After her transplant, Martin was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially lethal form of pneumonia caused by the Legionella bacterium, which is found in rivers, streams, and most fresh bodies of water.

“The whole thing was a blur for [Martin],” said Ralph Brindley, an attorney at Luvera Law Firm who is representing Martin. “They put her on a respirator and heavy medications.” 

Complications from the disease forced Martin into a 25-day stay in the hospital’s intensive care unit in Cascade Tower, where the infection was detected. She spent a total of 35 days in the hospital.

Martin periodically returns to the hospital for further treatment and is continually pained as a consequence of the Legionella infection, Brindley said. 

The tort claim, which seeks damages for Martin’s lost earnings, medical expenses, physical harm, and emotional harm, is required before a lawsuit can be filed against UWMC. The hospital has 60 days to investigate, negotiate, or settle before Martin’s claims can go to court.

“We don’t know whether a medical device was involved, if UW Medicine followed protocol, or whether the device manufacturer was aware of this,” Brindley said. “Medical devices that can’t be cleaned properly are breweries for infection. It’s the 21st century. We need to remove them from the operating room, and eliminate them from the medical environment altogether.” 

UWMC declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.

 

Reach reporter Brendan Gerrity at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @brerrity

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