Launching a $15-million class-action lawsuit against the East Central Health region of Canada, a woman from Two Hills is alleging the health authority acted "negligently, carelessly and recklessly" in failing to ensure that tools used on thousands of patients at St. Joseph's General Hospital were properly sterilized.
Patty-Lou Mihalcheon, a patient at the Vegreville hospital received stitches after hip and knee surgery last year.
Just as 3,000 other patients, she too later learned that improperly sterilized equipment might have been used in her treatment. Subsequent testing to determine whether she had been exposed to HIV, hepatitis or other diseases, followed.
The claim against the hospital alleges patients tested for HIV and hepatitis endured pain and suffering, mental distress, loss of income, medical costs and loss of enjoyment of life as a result of the hospital's actions, though none of these have been proven in court.
Says lawyer Richard Mallett of James H. Brown & Associates: "We are just looking for fair compensation for these people who have been affected.
"It is clear that proper procedures were not followed and it is important for those involved to be held accountable."
The suit comes four months after the medical officer of health for the East Central Health region closed St. Joseph's sterilization room because medical instruments to examine patients weren't being properly sterilized.
An audit discovered that endoscopes (tiny tubes inserted into the body to allow doctors to look at organs or take tissue samples for testing) were not properly brushed and cleaned on the inside, potentially leaving behind human blood and tissue that could contaminate other patients.
Yet the risk of contacting HIV and hepatitis B and C was not limited to the around 550 patients who underwent biopsies, tonsillectomies or operating-room procedures where their skin or mucous membranes were broken, increasing their risk for contamination.
Another 2,300 patients who underwent less risky procedures between April 2003 and March 2007 were also asked to have their blood tested.
Some had open wounds stitched up with safe and clean needles that come in pre-sterilized packages, but investigators discovered the tools used to hold the needle and pull it through the skin may have not have been properly sterilized.
According to the medical officer of health, while the risk of contracting the blood-borne pathogens was very low for these patients, the risk still existed.
In total, almost 3,000 patients were contacted and 60 per cent have since been tested.
So far, no cases of HIV or hepatitis can be directly linked to dirty instruments, defends Dr. John Cowell of the Health Quality Council of Alberta, which conducted a thorough investigation into the health region and released a scathing report Wednesday.
In March, Edmonton lawyer Gary Romanchuk had given the chances of successfully suing the hospital as low unless patients died or became seriously ill as a result of the poor sterilization.
However, lawyer Deborah Stewart, who specializes in medical malpractice, said in March that if the allegations of faulty sterilization are true, the hospital was negligent even before it was warned of the problem.
The lawsuit will now go before a judge in Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench, who will determine whether it will be certified as a class-action lawsuit.