KCBS2 Los Angeles
September 21, 2015
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Life had been a globetrotting adventure for Steve Wilkinson, a retired flight attendant from Lompoc.
Last December, he went to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood for a common procedure that involved using a duodenoscope to drain fluid buildup on his pancreas, a procedure that is performed more than 600,000 times a year in the United States.
The procedure was successful. Wilkinson said he was feeling great and at his peak.
But within two months, his health alarmingly declined. “I was totally completely knocked down,” Wilkinson said. His fever spiked for days. He was hospitalized.
Around the same time, UCLA Medical Center sent Wilkinson a test kit notifying him of potential exposure to CRE, a superbug, during his December medical procedure.
“I got a phone call from the director of epidemiology, and he said: Unfortunately, you have tested positive for the bacteria,” Wilkinson said.
Feeling depressed, worried and scared, he spent weeks in the hospital, unsure if he would ever leave.
“There were nights that I would look up to the ceiling and say: God, if this is going to kill me, please take me tonight because I can’t take this,” he said.
Jeffrey Gunzenhauser is the Interim Health Officer with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which is investigating the CRE outbreaks.
“CRE stands for carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae. When we say carbapenem-resistant, we’re referring to an antibiotic that’s called carbapenem that’s reserved as a last resort when other antibiotics fail,” Gunzenhauser said. “So, here we have a group of bacteria that are resistant to a very important antibiotic.”
“CRE is only occurring in health-care settings. And generally the majority of patients who get this are very sick individuals,” Gunzenhauser said.
So, what’s believed to be causing the cluster outbreaks? Doctors began zeroing in on a cause. The superbug possibly spreading on scopes, which some experts said, even when cleaned properly, could still transfer the bacteria from patient to patient.
“It’s been cleaned and sterilized. And every effort has been made to make it safe. It could be used on another patient later. And there’s a chance that person could come down with the same infection.”
According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, since the beginning of the year, there have been 15 patients who contracted highly resistant bacterial infections from duodenoscopes used in hospitals in the Los Angeles area. Two of the 15 patients died.
Brian Kabateck represents Wilkinson in a products-liability lawsuit filed against Olympus, the manufacturer of the duodenoscope used in Wilkinson’s procedure.
“Olympus knew there was a problem with this particular scope in Europe, going back to 2013,” the lawyer said.
The complaint alleges that the design makes it hard to access all areas of the device and that Olympus alerted customers in Europe of possible contamination issues if the device is not adequately cleaned.
“This lawsuit is about patient safety. What we don’t understand is why they didn’t advise anybody in the United States until 2015.”
Olympus America refused to speak on camera. But in a written statement said: “This issue is receiving the highest level of attention at Olympus. The emergence of drug-resistant micro-organisms is a challenge to the entire healthcare community. Olympus is working with relevant medical societies and our customers in research of this emerging issue and the development of additional safeguards to prevent infection associated with endoscopic procedures.”
Olympus issued a statement that can be viewed here.
In June, Wilkinson started putting weight back on, nearly 40 pounds. Now, he has fewer days with nausea and side effects from medicine. But he still does not feel well.
“I feel like I have a severe flu daily, and it doesn’t go away,” Wilkinson said.
But there are some bright days. He got married in August. However, his illness is always on his mind.
“There’s always the constant fear that the CRE is going to flare back up. Live each day to the fullest because you never know what’s going to be your last. I now know what that means,” he said.
CBS2 reached out to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. But it declined to comment.
If you are having a medical procedure that involves the duodenoscope, you might want to ask your doctor why it is being done, the risks and alternatives.