Poorly sterilized medical instruments may have been the cause of an outbreak of a bacterial infection among more than two dozen patients who underwent cosmetic surgery at one doctor's office, officials said Saturday.
According to county epidemiologist Dr. Hildy Meyers, the county began investigating when a number of patients reported similar rash-like symptoms on parts of their bodies where liposuction was performed. Laboratory tests confirmed that 12 of these patients had been infected with a bacterium called mycobacterium chelonae, which causes cysts but is not contagious.
Meyers, who is leading the county investigation, said all of these patients had been treated at the same doctor's office, but she declined to identify the physician.
Attorney Anderson Washburn, however, said two of his clients involved in the investigation have filed malpractice suits against Dr. Gerald Greenberg.
The clients, Jodie Drury and Cheryl Murphy, alleged in court documents recently filed that they contracted the infection at Greenberg's Laguna Beach office. The claims allege that improperly sterilized tools were inserted under the patients' skin for fat extraction.
"My clients still have sores, and the surgery happened in March," Washburn said. "New sores are still developing. They were both on IV antibiotics at one time and now are taking oral antibiotics to bring the infection under control."
Greenberg, who has moved his practice, could not be reached for comment.
Meyers said the bacterial infection is rare, but there have been outbreaks from other procedures, such as breast augmentation and cardiac surgery.
"The organism is ubiquitous and can typically be found in either tap water or distilled water," Meyers said. "Most people get exposed to it from time to time, and it doesn't usually cause problems unless it is introduced under the skin somehow, either through injury or, like in these incidents, it gets introduced under the skin through unsterile equipment."
The county Health Care Agency and the state medical board are investigating.