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Medical: Woman sues hospital after infection scare

By Chris Megerian Posted: 04/05/2006
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A former patient is suing Emory University Hospital for potentially exposing to her to a rare neurological disease when she underwent neck surgery almost two years ago.

Henry County teacher Tracy Price filed suit in DeKalb County State Court on March 29, citing medical malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, reckless infliction of emotional distress and breach of informed consent. Price's attorney, Wayne Grant, said he is also representing several other former Emory patients who may file similar suits.

The disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), is a rare brain disorder caused by a mutated protein and is similar to Mad Cow Disease. There is no cure for the disease and it is fatal within a year, although it can lay dormant for more than a decade.

Grant said the hospital should have quarantined its surgical tools or sterilized them with the chemical sodium hydroxide as soon as doctors suspected the possibility of CJD. Grant said Emory placed profits ahead of patient safety.

"To take even a remote chance of exposing anyone," he said, "is just unacceptable."

The lawsuit alleges that the failure to use sodium hydroxide violated Emory's own policies and placed Price in unnecessary danger when she underwent surgery on Sept. 20, 2004. Emory did not inform patients of their possible exposure to CJD for more than two weeks after it was initially discovered.

The suit calls for punitive damages in excess of $10,000, an investigation into why surgical tools were not more stringently sterilized, and the establishment of a monetary fund to cover Price's medical costs if she contracted the disease. If Price did not contract the disease, the money would be put toward medical research.

Emory Vice President for Communications Ron Sauder said CJD has not been transmitted through surgical tools within the last 30 years. He stressed the improbability that any patient who came in contact with the surgical tools - including Price - contracted CJD.

"We are going to be responding vigorously to all the claims," Sauder said.

Sauder said the disease affects only one in a million people each year worldwide. But Grant said Emory is underestimating the likelihood that Price or other patients have contracted CJD.

The CJD scare began on Sept. 15, 2004, when an Emory hospital patient with neurological problems received a preliminary diagnosis of CJD. After the diagnosis, the hospital began sterilizing its surgical equipment for a longer period of time.

"There are no cases in the medical literature of CJD having been transmitted following the routine measures of surgical instrument sterilization that we employed," Sauder wrote in an e-mail to the Wheel.

But Emory did not use sodium hydroxide, which the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organization says would dissolve brain tissue remaining on tools.

More than 500 patients were operated on with the tools, but 98 people who received brain or spine surgery were exposed to slightly higher risk.

On Oct. 8, Emory notified the 98 patients who had undergone neurosurgery from Sept. 10 to Sept. 27 that the diagnosis of CJD in the original patient was confirmed.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the lawsuit on Thursday.

Sauder said Emory wants to argue this case in court, not in the media.

"We'll respond to this step by step," he said.

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