Two patients’ families who say a fatal infection during surgery in the Greenville Health System claimed their loved ones’ lives have come forward to share their stories and pursue legal action if they can’t get the answers they want.
Three patients died after being exposed to a rare bacterial infection that GHS said could have contributed to their deaths and that ultimately affected 15 patients.
The families of longtime restaurateur Henry Wienacker and homemaker Ella Mae Mattison are convinced their loved ones’ fate could have been avoided.
The two died in hospice care within days of each other last month. They had learned of the severity of their infections only days before their deaths.
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“Right now, we just want answers,” Mattison’s daughter, Ellandra Davis, said recently, joining with Weinacker’s widow in a downtown Greenville law office to share their stories. “We want them to take responsibility for taking someone http://nglbwb.eng.gci:7001/newsgate/images/SmallCode.pngwho was so precious to us and meant so much to us. I do not feel that they have been forthcoming.”
A GHS spokeswoman said the health system can’t discuss specifics of the cases because of an ongoing investigation and because of federal health privacy laws, but that it intends to be transparent.
“Just as GHS elected a transparent approach in communicating to the public and to our patients that a potential infection outbreak was being investigated, we anticipate continuing that transparency,” spokeswoman Sandy Dees said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the State Department of Health and Environmental Control are investigating how the atypical Mycobacterium abscessus was introduced to the hospital.
The last week of March, final results were returned confirming the first recognized case of infection, said Dr. Robert Mobley Jr., medical director of quality at GHS.
Patients from as far back as 18 months were notified of the potential for infection, officials said.
Signs of infection can take several months to develop after surgery, Mobley said.
“Having one patient develop a surgical site infection does not trigger an epidemiologic investigation,” Mobley said. “It is when several similar infections occur that the potential for an outbreak is considered.”
The hospital system made the infection outbreak public on June 20.
The infection is associated with “only a few specific types of invasive surgery,” health system officials said. People with underlying conditions are most susceptible.
The potential to suffer infection is one that patients with underlying conditions recognize when they undergo surgery, said Blake Smith, a Greenville medical malpractice lawyer who is representing both families.
“That’s true of some infections, but this infection was absolutely preventable from day one,” Smith said. “This infection should’ve never happened.”
Smith said he believes the answers the families seek likely won’t come without pursuing legal action that will compel the health system to release information.
Henry and Lori Weinacker’s misfortune first struck in November 2012, when their popular Lake Hartwell restaurant of 44 years burned to the ground, leaving the couple unemployed and contemplating how to get back in business again.
“The loss was devastating,” Lori said, but it offered them a time of reflection, time to rebuild a foundation to move forward.
Henry, 76, had drawn plans for a new restaurant — but before seeing it through, he would take advantage of the time off to have what he believed would be a routine procedure to fix a faulty heart valve.
The open-heart surgery on March 27 at GHS seemed to go well, at first, but he would live for little more than two months after it.
Following the surgery, Henry had acclimated to his recovery, using his walker and making himself meals. However, in mid-May he began to complain of chest pains and developed fever.
Because the couple lived near AnMed Health, they went to the hospital emergency room there. Henry went to AnMed twice that week and was treated for fever.
A week later, he returned to AnMed for a third time for an unrelated biopsy procedure, where during the exam, doctors observed fluid leaking from his surgical wound.
Henry was sent to GHS, where he was hospitalized for the next month.
The results of a culture took weeks to come back, Lori said, and the couple was told on June 13 that the infection was rare and the result of a surgical procedure.
Two days later, on Father’s Day, an infection specialist told Henry that he had few options, that he likely wouldn’t survive the severe side effects of a yearlong round of medication needed to halt the infection.
“We were at a dead end,” Lori said. “We couldn’t do anything. We didn’t realize this infection in his body was festering in his chest.”
The wound couldn’t be closed, only patched, because the infection was so severe.
After a month in the hospital, Henry was admitted into hospice care on June 18. He died four days later.
On June 21 — a day before he died — Henry received a form letter from GHS dated June 20 that was sent to inform patients who might have been impacted by the infection.
The letter stated that the “probability is low” that a patient would suffer an infection but that any redness or drainage from the incision site or fever should be reported to a physician immediately.
Caring for mom
Ella Mae Mattison had been a dutiful servant of her church, Mount Ararat Independent Baptist Church in Iva.
The 59-year-old retired from her job in a cotton mill in Central and became a homemaker, her daughter said.
Last September, Mattison was in need of a kidney transplant but found she first must have open-heart surgery to clear four blockages.
Mattison had the bypass surgery at GHS.
She hit some “rough patches” as she recovered, Davis said, but “she was doing good. She was driving a little bit, went to a Valentine’s party with my nephew.”
In March, Mattison began to complain of chest pains and shortness of breath.
GHS doctors found an aortic aneurysm and performed surgery on March 10, Davis said.
Following surgery, the physician told the family the aneurysm had been caused by an infection but didn’t specify its nature or severity, Davis said.
The family believes the infection must have been contracted in September during Ella Mae’s bypass surgery, because she hadn’t had any invasive procedures before that.
A few weeks later, doctors performed surgery for another aneurysm.
“She tolerated it well,” Davis said. “They told us, ‘We think we got all the infection.’”
Mattison was transferred to an acute care facility on April 7 for antibiotic treatment and wound care.
A month later, she was complaining of chest discomfort again, and on May 13 GHS doctors performed another aneurysm surgery, the fourth and last surgical procedure she would undergo.
The wound couldn’t be closed because of the extent of the infection, so doctors covered the opening with a “muscle flap” procedure, Davis said.
She was sent back to the acute care facility, Davis said.
Over the course of the next month, Mattison struggled to recover through the intense side effects of antibiotics.
On June 16, family members said, the hospital system’s infectious disease specialist told them that Mattison had a myobacterial infection.
The next day, the family made the decision to move her into hospice care. She died two days later, June 19.
Davis, a registered nurse working in an Anderson hospice, said that she had trusted the system.
“I trusted them that they were going to follow their protocols and do their procedures and take care of my mother,” Davis said.
“I trusted them in whatever they told me, because they’re the doctors,” Davis said. “I just wanted to be the daughter. I didn’t want to be a nurse. I just wanted to be the daughter.”