An elderly member of one of Batavia's most prominent local families lies in a United Memorial Medical Center bed tonight gravely ill, and family members are fairly confident UMMC is responsible for her serious condition.
The aunt of local business woman Lois Gerace, and the great-aunt of Town of Batavia Board Member John Gerace, Margaret Wagner, 86, contracted clostridium difficile, more commonly called "C diff," after being treated for a fractured hip at UMMC.
She's been in the hospital for two weeks and medical personnel, according to Lois and John, have told the family she will likely succumb to the bacteria.
"They have her in what's called 'comfort care,'" Lois said.
UMMC CEO Mark Schoell acknowledges that there has been a slight spike in the incidents of C diff at the hospital, but said it's a common infectious bacteria at hospitals and UMMC takes every standard precaution to prevent its spread.
"I believe our infection controls procedures and policies are excellent," Schoell said. "They comply with all of the standards of the industry and all of the requirements of the health department of New York State. In fact, when we saw the spike in our absolute numbers of C diff, we immediately got the health department involved in the effort to manage those cases."
C diff most commonly strikes elderly people while hospitalized, especially when they're on antibiotics, but according to the Mayo Clinic (link above), C diff can make even healthy people not on antibiotics ill. While it is treatable, C diff is potentially fatal for anybody who contracts it.
Annually, more than 480,000 people are diagnosed with C diff. Of those, 28,000 die as a result. Not quite half of those deaths occur after people contract C diff in a hospital. The majority of deaths occur in nursing homes.
Schoell said typically, UMMC has a count of 40 to 45 patients and with that number of patients, at least two or three contract C diff.
The Geraces believe Wagner contracted C diff when, after her surgery, she was placed in a third floor recovery room with a C diff patient. At least, they say, that's what a nurse told them, though Lois admits they don't have lab tests or hospital records to support the assertion.
Recently, the hospital had 65 patients and currently has six C diff patients, Schoell said.
Up until yesterday, John Gerace said, his aunt was in a room on the third floor, but after he let a head nurse know that he had notified the media of the situation, the hospital removed all patients from the third floor and sterilized it from top to bottom.
"Now, if there wasn’t a problem, or if I didn’t say anything, there would still be people up on that third floor," John said.
Schoell said the decision to vacate the third floor and clean it was made well before the media was contacted by Gerace. He said the hospital could only make the move after the number of patients dropped, which typically happens on a weekend, so beds could more easily be relocated and all the C diff patients could be consolidated in the same wing.
"We would have done that, taken the same actions whether there was media involvement or not," Schoell said. "It was the right thing to do."
Schoell said by consolidating C diff patients in one wing, hospital staff can do a better job of controlling who enters and who leaves rooms, but on Sunday evening, two reporters were able to walk right up to the second floor, ask for a family member of a C diff patient, and be escorted down the hall to the area of the room (though the reporters made no attempt to enter the room). No staff members offered any objections or warnings.
John Gerace also disputes the assertion that there are only six C diff patients at UMMC. He said he's counted at least a dozen of the red "stop" signs similar to one placed outside his aunt's room on the second floor.
The Geraces are especially concerned for the sake of the community that there is no security on the second floor warning visitors that a potential lethal bacteria is present, nor are there adequate warning signs and information posted when you arrive on the floor warning of the danger.
"If you come in and you’re having a bad stomach day and your antacids aren’t kicking in, you’re done," said Robert Gerace. "In three or four days, you’re going to be in the same bed."
The Gerace's first learned of Margaret Wagner's condition when they came to visit her a few days after her hip surgery. They started toward her room, John said, and a nurse stopped them and said, "You don't want to go down there."
The nurse said they didn't know what was wrong with Wagner, but it was potentially communicable. Family members were eventually allowed into the room, but only after donning gowns and masks. They told Wagner they were dressed up for Halloween.
After visiting with Wagner a couple of times while wearing masks, another nurse pulled John aside and said the masks weren't necessary because C diff is not airborne.
All along the line, John said, communication from the hospital about how to protect themselves from C diff has been spotty and inconsistent.
"I'm leaving one day and a staffer says, 'Oh, by the way, you want to wash the bottom of your shoes off with chlorine and water,'" John said. "Nobody told us this before. You could be tracking it into your house with small children. Nobody is telling us this stuff. Why wouldn’t somebody come in and say, ‘oh, by the way, these are all the things you guys need to do'?"
Family members have been concerned about some of the sanitary practices they've observed over the past two weeks. They said they've seen janitors cleaning out contaminated rooms, sweep everything into the hall and then use ungloved hands to pick up the waste and put it in a trash can.
Lois's husband, Joe Gerace, is partners with her in Bob Harris Realty and he operates Gerace Hair Care (he's also chairman of the City of Batavia Republican Committee). She said she doesn't understand why the state requires barber shops and beauty salons to keep all trash in covered receptacles but all around the hospital, she's seen open containers used to dispose of potentially contaminated materials.
The Gerace family has a history of supporting UMMC and said one of the things they've valued about living in Batavia is that the city has a local, nearby hospital. Now all they want, each of them said, was to ensure that local residents get safe, quality care at their local hospital.
"I really don’t want to get into lawsuits and stuff like that," Lois said. "What I want to see is protection for the patients here."
This story produced in cooperation with The Batavian's news partner, WBTA.