RALEIGH, N.C. — Duke University Health System agreed Friday to hand over samples of used hydraulic fluid -- as well as to share reports about the chemicals in the fluid -- to attorneys for nearly 4,000 patients affected by a medical mistake.
Hundreds of those patients are now considering legal action as they wait to find out what chemicals were in the fluid.
Duke Health is drafting a third letter to patients, but the hospital would not say what it is about.
Earlier this week, the health care giant sent a letter to approximately 3,800 patients that told them that there is no risk of getting infections as a result of being operated on with surgical tools mistakenly washed in the used hydraulic fluid. The first letter was sent earlier in the year notifying patients of the mistake.
Raleigh attorney David Stradley said Friday that the letter would let patients know what was in that hydraulic fluid.
So far, Stradley's firm, which is representing more than 50 patients, has filed two lawsuits against Automatic Elevator Co., the Durham company accused of improperly disposing of the used hydraulic fluid, and Cardinal Health, the supplier that redistributed the barrels to the hospitals.
Stradley said Duke Health was not named in the lawsuit because hospitals have special protection under North Carolina law.
Before that can happen, however, Stradley said he will have several experts study Duke Health's analysis of the hydraulic fluid and independently analyze a sample of the fluid, which Duke Health plans to hand over sometime next week.
"You have to have an expert witness review the facts of the case and certify it as a meritorious case," Stradley said.
Stradley said once experts determine the components of the liquid, he will decide his next move.
While neither of the lawsuits are against Duke Health, lawyers said that if a lawsuit is filed, it could take years to resolve.
Another attorney, Thomas Henson, has compiled a list of more than 200 clients who have called his firm as a result of television advertisements. Henson said that he has not filed any lawsuits yet.
"I think the fact that Duke has not been forthcoming with a lot of information regarding the hydraulic fluid for six to seven months, it raises questions," Henson said.
Patients said they want to know the chemical makeup of the hydraulic fluid, so they can see how being exposed to it may affect their current and future health.
Duke Health insists the tainted surgical instruments were still sterile and that the infection rate among patients is not out of the ordinary.
A report from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services' Division of Facility Services said that Duke Health Raleigh Hospital let Automatic Elevator Co. put used hydraulic fluid in old detergent containers. When they were left in the parking lot last September, the hospital ordered them removed.
Months later, the two hospitals affected, Duke Raleigh and Durham Regional Hospital, received containers of the fluid and used them to clean surgical tools, even though hospital employees complained that the tools came out greasy.
The North Carolina Department of Labor has cited Duke Health Raleigh Hospital and Automatic Elevator Co. for failing to properly label the containers that held the hydraulic fluid.