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Thursday, February 12, 2009

One of those things: A staph infection after spinal fusion

A story from Jeff Knott:
My publisher tells the story of going into a hospital for a spinal fusion procedure known as a lumbar laminectomy (an open decompression). He needed help due to severe pain caused by neural impingement. The surgery is designed to remove a small portion of bone over a nerve root and/or disc material from under the nerve root, giving more space for movement.

At admission, he was in generally good health. On the morning following the surgery, the patient felt comfortable and was encouraged to see if he could sit up, which he could thanks to the morphine blocking any discomfort. However, by that afternoon he began to run a fever and began hallucinating. The nursing team was attentive and eventually called in a doctor (not the admitting physician – he had gone skiing in Colorado) to evaluate the situation. Nurses and techs drew blood and administered fever-lowering medication.

The test results came back and the doctor returned to inform the patient that he had contracted a staph infection – most likely during or just after the surgical procedure. That explained the fever, the hallucinations, the swelling and redness around the wound, and the patient's irritability.

Antibiotics were started and after four additional days in the hospital, the patient was wheeled to his car. In addition to the routine bill for the surgery and hospitalization, there was an increase in the total by four additional and unexpected days of hospitalization – none of which were caused by the patient, but surely to be paid for by the patient and his insurance company.

The patient returned to the orthopedic surgeon's office for check-ups during the weeks that followed. He met with the doctor a couple of times, discussed the success of the surgery, the reduction or near-elimination of pain, and rehabilitation. But not once did the doctor bring up the staph infection. When the patient mentioned it, the discussion was brushed off as "one of those things" that can happen in a blue moon. It was obviously an embarrassment – but it didn’t slow down the flow of patients through his office.

Advice for people who have suffered a hospital-acquired infection: Ask the surgeon what s/he would do differently next time to prevent an infection. And don't pay that part of the bill.

Read a spinal surgery error story.

Thanks to Jeff Knott for the excerpt from his new book, Navigating the Healthcare Maze-What You Need To Know, published by DC Press.

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