CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -Thousands of patients at a Veterans Administration clinic in Tennessee may have been exposed to the infectious body fluids of other patients when they had colonoscopies in recent years, and now VA medical facilities all over the U.S. are reviewing their own procedures.
VA officials also said a problem was found with equipment at an ear, nose and throat clinic at the VA medical center in Augusta, Ga., and 1,800 veterans have been notified they may have been exposed to infection there.
A spokesman at the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., said the clinic is offering free blood tests and medical care to all patients whose records show they had colonoscopies between April, 23, 2003 and Dec. 1, 2008.
Christopher Conklin said in a telephone interview Friday that notification letters were sent this week by registered mail to 6,378 patients of the Murfreesboro facility. He said no related health problems have been reported, and every measure is being taken to assure that affected veterans are screened.
One veteran who received notification, Gary Simpson, 57, said, "The fact that it took five years for them to catch a mistake like that — it seems like somebody should have caught an incorrect valve and incorrect cleaning of the equipment during that time." His wife Janice called the discovery "sickening" and "horrifying."
Conklin said a valve on equipment used in the colonoscopies was discovered wrongly connected Dec. 1 and the mistake was traced back to April 23, 2003.
A statement from the VA said that in response to the discovery at Murfreesboro and an inspection that found a problem with endoscopic equipment at the VA medical center in Augusta, Ga., all VA medical centers and outpatient clinics are reviewing procedures in a special training program described as a "step-up."
A VA statement released Monday said 1,800 veterans who were treated in Augusta, Ga., from January through November last year in the ear, nose and throat clinic at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center are being notified "that they may have been exposed to infection because the instrument used in the procedure was improperly disinfected." The statement described the risk of infection as "extremely small."
Simpson, a Tennessee Valley Authority retiree who lives in Spring City, received his notice Wednesday and went Thursday to a local doctor for a blood screening. He was awaiting results Friday of tests that included HIV and hepatitis.
Simpson, who served in the U.S. Army from 1970 to 1974, said he had a colonoscopy at the clinic in Murfreesboro in 2007.
His wife said she was "praying it comes out OK."
She said the notification letter refers to an incorrect valve and also to "tubing attached to the scope that may not have been properly cleaned between patients."
"I would like to know if they were using tubing that should have been thrown out," she said.
A statement released by Conklin said that while the "valve-tube connection does not come in direct contact with a patient, there is a possibility patients may have been exposed to infection."
"We know this will upset many veterans," Juan Morales, director of VA Tennessee Valley Health Care System that includes the Murfreesboro clinic, said in the statement. "Both circumstances present a minimal risk of exposure to the veterans who had this procedure. We believe this aggressive approach to notification enforces our commitment to those we serve."