Local News

New Year Could Bring Legal Fight For Duke Health System

Posted January 1, 2006
Updated December 10, 2006

— B. W. Holland expects to walk with a limp for the rest of his life. He suffers from constant pain and constant uncertainty about his health and says it all stems from his back surgery at a Duke University Health System hospital.

"We all thought that Duke was No. 1 in the country, but the way I've been treated, it's a disgrace to the entire medical community," Holland said.

Holland is one of an estimated 3,800 patients exposed to tainted surgical instruments at two Duke Health hospitals in late 2004. The medical tools were contaminated by used elevator hydraulic fluid that was mistakenly used in the cleaning process.

Dr. Michael Cuffe, vice president of medical affairs for Duke University Health System, says 2005 offers plenty of lessons learned from the mistake, resulting in stricter policies to prevent any future mix-ups.

While administrators at Duke Health are looking forward to a new year of shaping stronger policies, lawyers representing patients are looking forward to shaping a stronger legal case. One lawyer tells WRAL that 2006 will be the year the hospital system is named in a lawsuit.

Lawsuits have already been filed against Automatic Elevator -- the Durham company accused of improperly disposing the used hydraulic fluid -- and Cardinal Health- the supplier that redistributed the barrels of used fluid to the two hospitals.

Duke Health contends infection risk from the surgical instruments was minimal, but many patients, like Holland, blame the mix-up for health problems.

"I was probably a workaholic," Holland said. "I absolutely loved working with my hands, but those days are over."

Last January, Duke Health sent letters to patients who had surgeries over a two-month period at Raleigh Duke Health and Durham Regional Hospital about the medical mix-up. Since then, the health care system has started tracking patients' health concerns, set up an information line and developed a Web site to provide information on the case.

Reflecting back on the year, Cuffe said Duke should have communicated better with the affected patients.

"We could have worked a little quicker in providing some of those alternative forms of communication to let them know the exposure was small," Cuffe said. "And we don't believe anyone was harmed by it."

Hearing that response, Holland says he believes Duke Health simply "doesn't get it."

"They're brushing it off and saying they've changed this and changed that," Holland said. "But what have they done for us -- for the people already affected? Nothing."

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