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One woman's crusade to combat healthcare-associated infections

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
healthcare-associated infections. HAI, MRSA, fatalities, handwashing

In less than a year’s time, Victoria Nahum confronted healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) at three different hospitals in three different states. As a result of the three devastating experiences, Victoria has become proactive against HAIs.

She launched an ongoing campaign six years ago to familiarize hospital staff, healthcare professionals, and the general public in regard to simple measures that can prevent acquiring a potentially fatal infection.

The first up-close-and-personal experience occurred in November 2005 when her father-in-law Quintino (“Quint”) suffered a heart attack and subsequently acquired an HAI. The second experience was a personal one for Victoria; she endured six years of misery, ending in March 2006, following the receipt of saline breast implants. The third, and most tragic, experience occurred in September 2006 when her 27-year-old son, Joshua, suffered a skull fracture and femur (thigh bone) fracture from a sky-diving accident. A subsequent HAI resulted in his death. Victoria is well aware that basic hygiene measures could have prevented all three incidents.

Victoria’s father-in-law Quint was hospitalized for two days following an acute myocardial infarction (MI; heart attack). After discharge, he contracted pneumonia. He was placed on three different types of antibiotics for six-to-eight weeks. Fortunately, he recovered; however, Victoria notes that hospitals are “hotbeds for germs” and that most likely Quint acquired the pneumonia because hospital personnel exposed him to infectious organisms because of their inadequate employment of basic hygiene practices such as hand washing.

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Victoria underwent cosmetic surgery for placement of saline breast implants and was very pleased with the results. For a year following the surgery, she had no health problems; however, at that point she developed fatigue, muscle pain, and joint pain. In addition, she suffered from intermittent fever, persistent rashes, sores in her mouth, and dry eyes. During six years of suffering, no explanation was found for her symptoms by at least six different physicians. She looked back over the long period of discomfort and came to the realization that she had none of the problems before receiving the breast implants and decided to have the implants removed. About four months before reaching her decision, she had consulted a rheumatologist that suggested that her symptoms might be due to an autoimmune disease that was triggered by the implants. Instead of suggesting their removal, however, he placed her on medications that would suppress the symptoms. He told her that she was likely to have the autoimmune disease “forever” and that removing the implants would not reduce her symptoms. He told her that the medications would reduce her discomfort; however, she found that the medications made her “feel like a zombie.” Thus, she consulted another doctor and requested that he remove the implants. During the removal, the surgeon found that the implants were coated with the bacterium Staphylococcus epidermidis. The organism is commonly found on the human skin and at that location it is harmless; however, if it infects internal organisms, it can become harmful. Apparently, S. epidermidis on Victoria’s skin contaminated the implants as they were being inserted. The likely culprit is an inadequate Betadine surgical prep at the time of the procedure. Following removal, Victoria went from “feeling like an 80-year-old woman” who had difficulty some days with a simple task such as lifting a glass of water, to a condition of good health.

Her son, Joshua, landed hard on a sky-dive and suffered a fractured skull and fractured femur. He was in intensive care for 5 ½ weeks. During that time, he required a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection. However, despite that setback, he improved sufficiently to be transferred to a rehab facility. Within six days of his transfer, he contracted yet another infection, which was present in his cerebrospinal fluid, and was transferred back to the ICU. The new infection was determined to be from Enterobacter aerogenes. The infection caused swelling within his brain that forced a portion of it into his spinal column and he was rendered a permanent ventilator-dependent quadriplegic. He subsequently expired.

Shortly after Joshua’s death, Victoria became aware that all three of the family’s incidents had the same basis: an HAI. Thus, she and her husband Armando embarked on a campaign to increase awareness of healthcare professionals and the lay public regarding simple methods they can take to reduce the risk of HAIs. In 2006, they founded the Safe Care Campaign, which addresses HAIs. Last February, they launched a Quick Response (QR) Code Patient Safety Education Program in collaboration with Kimberly-Clark, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Joint Commission to provide hospitals and healthcare facilities with free patient and caregiver education available instantly at the bedside. In addition, together with the CDC and Kimberly-Clark, they have developed a five minute video, similar to an airline safety video, which outlines simple steps that can markedly reduce the risk of HAIs. The video, “Hand Hygiene Saves Lives,” is available free on the CDC Website.

When Victoria and Armando launched their campaign, they did encounter minor resistance from hospital personnel regarding their input. However, over the years that situation has improved markedly. Victoria attributes the improved receptiveness to an increased awareness of the hazards of HAIs. She recommends that all individuals should be proactive when engaging a healthcare professional and simply ask them to wash their hands before touching them or a loved one.

Facts about HAIs

  • HAIs are the fourth largest killer annually, accounting for 99,000 deaths
  • HAIs affect more than 2 million patients each year, meaning about one in every 20 patients will contract a HAI
  • HAIs kill more people in the US than breast cancer, auto accidents, and AIDS combined
  • HAIs add an estimated $6.7 billion in costs to healthcare facilities each year
  • A consumer survey commissioned by Kimberly-Clark Health Care found that more than half of the consumers (56%) are not familiar with HAIs

For further information regarding the Safe Care Campaign, click on this link.
For further information regarding Kimberly-Clark, click on this link.