When Victoria Martin contacted us this fall, she was bravely fighting unthinkable medical challenges and searching for answers.
After a decade-long struggle with heart failure, Victoria survived a heart transplant at the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) – only to contract Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially deadly form of pneumonia, during her recovery at the hospital.
She wanted to know how she and several other patients contracted Legionnaires’, and understand what was behind the deadly outbreak so it could be prevented in the future.
In September 2016, we filed a claim – a precursor to a lawsuit – against UWMC to find out.
Victoria was admitted to UWMC in August 2016, no stranger to heart issues. The 32-year-old experienced total heart failure when she was 21, and used an artificial heart pump for two years. Victoria thought her luck had finally turned when she quickly climbed the transplant list and successfully weathered the transplant surgery.
Tragically, during recovery her care team told her she was infected with the preventable Legionnaires’ disease – a severe form of pneumonia caused by Legionella bacteria living in freshwater systems. She fell into a spiral that kept her in the intensive care unit for the next 25 days, in a haze and often on a respirator.
“The past decade of my life has been consumed by heart failure, which I’ve fought hard to overcome,” Victoria said. “Now, just when I’ve been blessed to receive the gift of life through a transplant, it’s unimaginable to run head-on into something preventable like Legionnaires’ disease.”
The UWMC Legionnaires’ disease outbreak
The UWMC’s Legionnaires’ disease outbreak infected five patients in the hospital’s Cascade Tower in August and September. Two of the patients tragically died and three (including Victoria) very fortunately survived, but with the potential for serious ongoing complications.
UWMC and other hospitals have a responsibility for the safety of their patients, especially those that are the most at risk.
The Cascade Tower houses many of the hospital’s most susceptible patients, where individuals’ immune systems are depressed significantly to allow their bodies to accept the transplanted organs. When infection occurs, it complicates treatment and increases the chances of transplant rejection.
While Victoria received quality treatment from many providers at UWMC, other systemic failures and errors can overshadow the good work of individual clinicians.
According to the UWMC and media reports, Legionella bacteria was found in several sites within the hospital, including an ice machine and sinks in the Cascade Tower and in three heater-cooler machines that regulate patients’ body temperatures during surgery. One of these machines was used during Victoria’s heart transplant, but it is not yet clear whether it was infected with the bacteria.
Finding the truth
One thing we do know: Legionnaires’ disease is preventable, but it’s a growing concern. Outbreaks of the disease nearly quadrupled in the last 15 years according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
“People are unnecessarily and avoidably getting sick and dying from preventable infections,” CDC Director Tom Frieden told the Washington Post. “And the cases carry a high price tag: The annual cost of treating Legionnaires’ disease, based on hospital claims, is about $434 million.”
Victoria’s legal actions provide a pathway to uncover whether a medical device was involved in her infection, whether UWMC followed protocol for sterilization and cleaning, and whether the device manufacturer was aware of the issue, among other questions. We don’t know why healthcare professionals and manufacturers can’t keep these infection breweries out of the operating room, but we’re going to find out.
Victoria is an exceptionally strong person, and the fight of her life will continue. Sadly, she’s not alone. Her experience serves as a warning that hospital-acquired infections are an ongoing threat, and the industry needs to dramatically increase its safety measures.
On August 25, 2017, tragically, a women in her twenties died after her and another person contracted Legionnaire’s disease at the UWMC. You can learn more about this second outbreak in these Seattle Times, KING and KOMO articles.
To learn more about the previous UWMC Legionnaires’ disease outbreak and Victoria’s claim you can read these Seattle Times and Puget Sound Business Journal articles. These KING 5 TV video clips provide additional interviews and details on the outbreak and our legal process.
We’re here to help
We are here to help if you or a family member were personally affected by the UWMC Legionnaires’ disease outbreak, or if you have another legal issue you would like to discuss.
You can reach us by phone: (206) 467-6090; or through our contact page.