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An experience far from routine

Patient had a standard procedure -- then flesh-eating bacteria.

July 13, 2008|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

On Aug. 15, 2006, Alicia Cole entered Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center for a routine surgery -- removing noncancerous growths from her uterus.

Several days after the procedure, it was clear something was wrong.

The actress' abdominal area was red and swollen. She had a temperature of 103 degrees. At one point, the inflamed incision site oozed a brown fluid.

A hospital record dated Aug. 21, 2006, said Cole had a postoperative wound infection, according to a state report.

But it would take four more days before doctors made a presumptive diagnosis that she had necrotizing fasciitis, better known as flesh-eating disease, according to the state report. That day, she underwent the first of five surgeries to remove dying flesh and infected tissue.

"All this area was on fire," Cole said, pointing at her abdomen. "I was being eaten alive."

The diagnosis of flesh-eating bacteria -- an infection that destroys muscles, skin and underlying tissue -- was confirmed on Aug. 31.

"They took me back and strategically cut apart my abdomen and left butt cheek to the point where I basically looked like a shark attack victim," said Cole, now 46. "I had a big cavernous hole where the center of my body was."

A friend of Cole's filed a complaint with the California Department of Public Health regarding the hospital's infection control practices. Cole later followed up, and state health officials visited the medical center Oct. 10, 2007, to examine hospital records involving her case.

The state later cited the hospital for failing to report the case to the Public Health Department, which requires that any "unusual occurrence" that threatens the health of patients be reported to public health officials.

State inspectors also wrote that the hospital failed to follow its policy on monitoring and controlling hospital-acquired infections. They said a review of the minutes from the hospital's infection control meeting held on Aug. 22, 2006, showed no discussion of Cole's postoperative infection.

In a written response to the state, hospital officials said they would report such cases to public health authorities in the future. They also said staff discussions on Cole's illness were held at her bedside.

Hospital officials declined to talk specifically about Cole's case, but said no other patients contracted necrotizing fasciitis when she was in the hospital. They said they sympathize with patients who acquire infections while at the hospital, adding that the facility ranks as "above average" in the state for "surgical infection prevention."

Nonetheless, hospital officials said they are beefing up oversight of infection control issues.

In the meantime, Cole, who has had roles in movies and television shows, is still recovering from her wounds and suing the hospital.

Ideally, she said, hospitals should be required to report infection rates to the public. She supports such efforts in the state Legislature; similar efforts died last year along with the proposed comprehensive overhaul of California's healthcare system.

"If you go to a restaurant, you can decide where you want to eat by looking at the letter grade in the window," Cole said. "I would like to see that for hospitals."


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