How Filthy Medical Equipment Shut Down 16 Army Operating Rooms
Policy + Politics

How Filthy Medical Equipment Shut Down 16 Army Operating Rooms

MIKE BLAKE / Reuters

President Trump over the weekend renewed his vow to vastly improve medical treatment for the nation’s soldiers and veterans, although increasingly that task appears to be an uphill battle.

Just when the Department of Veterans Affairs seemed to have bounced back from a three-year-old scandal over scores of people dying while awaiting admission to VA health centers nationwide, the Inspector General last month revealed outrageous patient treatment at the main health care facility for veterans in Washington, D.C.

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IG Investigators found that conditions were so wretched that physicians repeatedly halted operations and dialysis treatments in the past year because of lack of fresh, sterile medical supplies.

Now comes an even more shocking report from San Antonio, Texas: The Brooke Army Medical Center, the flagship of the Army’s health system with a burn ward that has treated hundreds of combat victims, was forced to close more than half of its operating rooms and reduce elective surgeries after it discovered improper sterilization of surgical tools.

The scandalous conditions, first reported by the San Antonio Express-News, disrupted 73 cases, including 16 incidents in which “fragments of organic material such as bone, skin or blood were left on surgical tools,” according to the newspaper.

The 1.5 million-square foot hospital facility includes 425 military and civilian beds and has a rooftop helipad that is used to move trauma patients directly to the emergency room. The hospital employs 8,500 military and civilian workers, including many doctors, nurses and technicians who have rotated in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Commanding officers at the facility told the newspaper they had closed 16 of the 28 operating rooms because of a shortage of 600 sets of properly sterilized instruments. They were unable to say when the hospital could reopen those operating rooms – or whether any patients suffered serious or life-threatening infections as a result of being exposed to dirty surgical tools.

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But officials stressed that the closures of operating rooms would not affect the Level 1 trauma center, which is granted priority for sterilized equipment and handles the most urgent cases. The Army hospital handles 48,000 emergency cases a year, mostly involving Army veterans from the Texas region.

The hospital announced the closures last Friday, just ahead of the newspaper report, saying that BAMC had become busier over the past year and that surgical services in particular had increased in number. As a result, the hospital said, leaders were evaluating “multiple courses of action” regarding optimal staffing, required equipment and space needs.

"We wanted to be proactive about ensuring we are 100 percent able to meet the additional requirements with the safety and high quality standards our patients expect and deserve," Col. Douglas Soderdahl, Deputy Commander for Surgical Services, said in the statement. "We took this step very thoughtfully and with our patients first and foremost in mind."

But that is small solace to potentially hundreds of thousands of active-duty and retired veterans being treated at VA and military hospitals throughout the country who now have to worry as much about poorly sterilized equipment and inadequate supplies as the length of time it takes to gain admission to facilities and the quality of health care once they get there.

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One patient whose elective hip-replacement surgery was delayed told the San Antonio Express-News that she was having second thoughts about having the procedure done at BAMC, especially since her doctor is expecting to deploy overseas soon.

“It’s very sad to know they don’t have enough staff to keep their equipment properly sterilized so they have to cancel surgeries,” said Marion Hempenstall, 77. “That’s very unfortunate … because I’m older, but all these young troops that are coming back. I think they can still do all the trauma stuff, but then they can’t do all this other stuff at the moment.”