Ill ex-hospital worker cites lab troubles, fearing worst

The woman who alerted health officials to questionable HIV laboratory tests at Maryland General Hospital - and is now infected with HIV herself - says she's convinced that problems at the health care facility are more serious and pervasive than inspectors have discovered.

Kristin S. Turner, a former lab worker at the hospital, said she fears there could have been thousands of questionable tests for HIV and hepatitis, instead of the hundreds officials have identified in an inspection of the 245-bed health care facility.

It was a complaint from Turner late last year that triggered the initial inquiry by the state Office of Health Care Quality.

In an interview at her attorney's office yesterday, Turner said her life has been irreversibly changed by contracting HIV and hepatitis - the result, she contends, of being showered with infected blood serum when the hospital's testing equipment malfunctioned.

"It was the worst nightmare of every medical worker," she said softly but firmly. "Everything about my life has changed. It tore it completely apart, turned it upside down."

Turner, 32, filed a lawsuit last week in Baltimore Circuit Court against Maryland General and Adaltis USA Inc., the manufacturer of the blood analyzer.

Hospital officials released a three-paragraph statement last night in which they announced hiring PCS Laboratory Solutions of Midway, Utah, to provide immediate lab management support, perform a comprehensive review of the hospital's lab and make any changes. Officials also stated that they would expand efforts to "contact everyone who should be retested." Lee Kennedy, a hospital spokesman, refused further comment.

Representatives of Adaltis did not return calls seeking comment on Turner's assertions.

Meanwhile, state and federal inspectors, along with officials of a private accreditation agency, yesterday continued an unannounced review of the hospital that began Tuesday. Citing the continuing inspection, state health officials also declined to comment on Turner's statements.

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Maryland Democrat who represents the district where Maryland General is located, said yesterday that a congressional hearing will be held in May to look into the testing equipment and its use.

Officials at Maryland General - an affiliate of the University of Maryland Health System - have acknowledged that 460 suspect test results were sent to patients over a 14-month period ending in August last year.

According to a state inspection report, hospital laboratory personnel manipulated and eliminated machine readings showing that recently completed blood tests might be inaccurate and should be discarded. The hospital has begun efforts to find and retest all patients who received the suspect results.

Hospital officials say they're cooperating with the review by the state Office of Health Care Quality, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.

In yesterday's interview, Turner said she noticed problems with the hospital's blood testing machine, known as a Labotech, shortly after going to work in the hospital laboratory in the fall of 2002.

"Every run had different errors. Three of every five tests were wrong. The machine failed its own self test," Turner said. She added that the machine would often skip over required steps in the testing process: "You'd never even know unless you were standing there watching. None of the techs had confidence in the machine."

Turner said complaints about the equipment became so frequent that the manufacturer at one point sent a second machine as a backup. But the problems continued, she said.

She said the complaints were registered with James Stewart, the laboratory's administrative director. Stewart, named as a defendant in Turner's lawsuit, did not respond to requests for comment.

Turner said the machine was used two to three times a week to process about 60 patient samples for HIV or hepatitis. She estimated that the number of tests performed before the hospital stopped using the equipment in August was "in the thousands."

The incident that led to her infection occurred on March 12, 2003, Turner said, when the machine was processing a batch of samples and its computer screen indicated a problem that required her to open the case.

After checking the positioning of the equipment, Turner said, she pushed a button to continue the test. Shortly afterward, she said, the machine malfunctioned - an arm slammed down on the test-tube samples, smashing the glass and splattering her with blood.

Turner said she was wearing protective goggles and a mask, but the HIV-infected blood dripped under the goggles and "under my nose and pretty much all over."

When she couldn't find a supervisor, Turner said, she sought help from fellow lab workers, then washed away the blood and went to the emergency room for treatment. She said tests performed on her that day were negative for HIV and hepatitis.

"It was very scary," she said recounting the scene.

Because of the exposure, Turner said, she immediately began taking medications prescribed for those who have been exposed to the viruses.

In June, she said, she developed a high fever and became "really sick. It was like a very bad case of the flu."

She said she was admitted to the hospital for about a week, at which time tests showed she was infected with HIV and hepatitis.

Turner is now taking 12 pills a day - ten in the morning and two at night - to fight the infection. "Some of the meds are horrible. The HIV medicines are particularly virulent," she said.

But the medications are only part of a painful adjustment. Some longtime friends "just disappeared," she declared. It was especially hard to tell her family. When one has HIV, Turner said, "It doesn't matter how you got it."

"Every single minute of every day is affected by what happened that day. People walk away from me," she added.

She said that shortly after she moved into a new apartment building, word got out that she was HIV positive, and a flier was distributed to the residents informing them of her condition. She now lives out of state.

Turner said that after she got no response to her initial complaints to the hospital about the inaccurate lab testing, she sent a detailed letter to city health officials. They, in turn, passed the information on to state regulators who began a limited inspection in January. That in turn led to the wider investigation now under way.

"They [hospital officials] knew the community was at risk, but they didn't do anything," she said, explaining why she turned to the state. "I didn't get any response."

Turner said she was especially concerned because sending out potentially inaccurate test results put not only patients at risk, but also the people with whom they came in contact.

"I wish the hospital had done the right thing on their own. I wish we didn't have to be here right now. This really didn't have to happen," she said. "The community needs to be able to trust the results from their hospital. That trust has been completely stomped on and broken."