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St. Louis' VA reopens surgical unit after shutdown

St. Louis' VA reopens surgical unit after shutdown

March 11th, 2011 in News

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Surgeries resumed Thursday at the Veterans Affairs hospital in St. Louis, more than a month after they were shut down over sterilization concerns.

The hospital suspended surgeries Feb. 2 after surgical trays were found to be pitted with corrosion. More than 200 surgeries scheduled for the John Cochran VA Medical Center instead were performed at other St. Louis hospitals at the VA's expense, said Dr. Michael Crittenden, chief of surgical services at the hospital. A few others were performed at VA hospitals in Kansas City, Mo., and Columbia, Mo., but Crittenden wasn't sure how many. The cost of moving surgeries to alternative sites wasn't immediately known, hospital officials said.

VA experts, along with private vendors and independent consultants examined the sterilization processing department at the center and determined it was OK to start surgeries again, said Rima Nelson, director of the St. Louis center. Thousands of surgical instruments were either replaced or thoroughly cleaned, Crittenden said.

"We are always focused on patient safety, and now we are opening back up, fully confident we are providing our veterans the quality care they earned," Nelson said.

The hospital performs procedures for cataracts, hernias, orthopedic problems and general surgeries, along with high-tech robotic removals of cancerous prostate glands.

Investigators were unable to determine a single source for the corrosion, Nelson said. Everything, including the water used to clean the equipment and steam, was looked at, she said.

The sterilization concern was the second in less than a year at the Cochran center. In 2010, faulty sterilization at the center's dental clinic raised concerns that 1,812 veterans were potentially exposed to hepatitis and HIV. Most of those veterans have been tested and no cases of HIV or hepatitis have been connected to the dental clinic.

U.S. Rep. Russ, Carnahan, a St. Louis Democrat, said problems at Cochran have been "chronic and persistent."

"I sincerely hope this is a step forward in the effort to make excellence the standard of care at Cochran," Carnahan said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said that while she was pleased the problem has been resolved, "it's a situation that cannot happen again. Our veterans deserve the best treatment possible."

Crittenden said there is a significant backlog of surgeries. Emergency surgeries still may be performed at other hospitals until the VA gets caught up, he said.

Meanwhile, the hospital is moving forward in an effort to ensure sterilization problems won't happen again. On Tuesday, the VA awarded a $6.8 million contract for the design and construction of a new sterile processing department. Nelson said that will allow for new cleaning technology and better tracking of surgical instruments and who used them.