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May 25, 2015

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Do No Harm:

MRSA affects whole family

Couple describe their anguish after hospital staff withheld diagnosis of a serious infection contracted after a heart attack

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Leila Navidi

Healthcare consumers Pam and David Spendlove speak during a panel discussion named ” The Many Sides of MRSA” during a MRSA Conference sponsored by the Nevada State Health Division at the Renaissance Las Vegas Hotel Tuesday, November 16, 2010. David became infected with MRSA after heart surgery at Valley Hospital this year.

MSRA Conference

Healthcare consumers Pam and David Spendlove speak during a panel discussion named Launch slideshow »

Sunday Discussion: Hospital Infections

After a Sun investigation found lethal "superbugs" are infecting thousands of patients in local hospitals, four people with distinct perspectives on these hospital-acquired infections gathered to discuss the dangers posed by the bacteria and obstacles to fighting their spread.

Just months after David Spendlove contracted a deadly bacteria in a hospital, he and his wife found themselves this week telling their story to a captivated audience of 200 nurses and administrators from hospitals and nursing homes.

The couple’s message: Don’t deceive your patients if something has gone wrong. Don’t minimize what’s happening. Don’t lie.

That’s what hospital employees did to them, David and Pamela Spendlove said.

David Spendlove almost died from the lethal “superbug” MRSA, and hospital employees had refused to tell the couple the truth about the infection.

He has mostly recovered, and wanted to tell his story — not to attack the hospital, but so health care professionals can learn the importance of being honest with patients.

The couple were asked to speak by the Nevada State Health Division, which licenses health care facilities and organized the seminar. It was prompted by a Las Vegas Sun investigation of hospital-acquired cases of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which often manifests itself as surgical site or bloodstream infections or pneumonia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate about 19,000 people a year die from MRSA, which thrives in health care facilities and exists in its community-acquired form in schools and gymnasiums. The health division invited representatives from every hospital, long-term care facility and school district in the state to discuss a communitywide approach to the crisis. But more than just a meeting among professionals, this gathering included patients who had been infected with the bacteria.

That’s where the Spendloves come in.

On June 17, David had a heart attack and was taken to Valley Hospital Medical Center. Doctors and nurses saved his life, but he contracted MRSA and the infection went to his lungs, causing pneumonia. The infection still fatigues him, but he hopes to return to work in about a month. The family struggles to get by on food stamps, donations from friends and family and about $100 a week in disability payments.

Valley Hospital officials did not return a request for comment for this story.

According to the Spendloves, hospital employees identified the infection and then put David in isolation. His visitors were told to wear gowns and gloves — even if doctors, nurses and food servers didn’t always do the same, the Spendloves said.

All the while, Valley Hospital nurses and doctors refused to tell them his ailment, the couple said, despite repeated questioning.

“It’s just a skin virus or a lung virus,” David recalled one person saying.

“It’s nothing to worry about,” someone else told him.

“They would not give a straight answer,” David told the audience, his voice weak from illness.

Finally, when pressured by a family member, a nurse reluctantly told them he was infected with MRSA.

“It was almost like she was instructed not to tell us,” David said. “We felt it was a secret they were keeping from us.”

Pamela said she overheard a doctor outside the hospital remark that MRSA “is no big deal.”

“Well, maybe MRSA is no big deal if you’re not the one living with the consequences,” she said.

The audience was hushed as the Spendloves told their story. The topic is sensitive because MRSA infections are preventable, and a Sun investigation found that Las Vegas hospitals are not doing everything possible to prevent them.

Among the speakers was an infection-control coordinator from the Veterans Affairs, which has taken an aggressive approach to eliminating hospital-acquired MRSA infections. The VA uses a $40 test that provides results within 90 minutes to screen every patient at admission, so those who are colonized or infected with MRSA can be immediately isolated. They also test patients when they are transferred from one unit to another, and when they’re discharged, so the VA will know if they contracted an infection during their stay.

The VA has drastically reduced its MRSA cases using this method, which is not employed by any Las Vegas hospital.

State Health Officer Dr. Tracey Green, who helped organize the conference, said its goal was to improve communication and develop broad-based solutions to the MRSA problem.

“Clearly, we have to do better,” Green said. “This is critically important. It affects everybody. The only way to improve is to have everyone working on it.”

Among the day’s topics: How to compel health care facilities to take the problem more seriously. About 20 consumer advocates discussed how to organize themselves, and received on-the-spot tutoring from a representative of the national nonprofit organization Consumers Union, which has made patient safety a goal.

Steve Winters, a retired Reno businessman whose mother died of hospital-acquired MRSA and other conditions she picked up in a Northern Nevada hospital, said the health care facilities are resistant to change, but public opinion and the truth are on the side of consumers.

State Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, closed the meeting by promising to sponsor legislation in the 2011 session to require health care-associated infections to be reported by facility in Nevada and to require health care facilities to post their infection rates in a public place, so patients can be aware of the risks of entering the facilities.

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