U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D–Dearborn) sent an inquiry Monday to the director of the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System regarding dozens of surgeries for veterans that were cancelled or rescheduled in the past few weeks because of a potential equipment contamination.

Though concerns with sterilization of surgical equipment were also raised in 2014, Dingell said in an interview Tuesday that she recently began receiving calls from concerned constituents about what appears to be a similar issue.

According to Derek Atkinson, a public affairs official for the Healthcare System, nurses at the hospital began noticing inorganic particulate matter several weeks ago on the cases containing surgical equipment that had previously been sterilized. The system has been working to determine the cause and solve the problem since that time.

“Our O.R. nurses, as part of their normal inspection process perhaps, would notice one of these little micro particulates. Essentially — just to kind of give you an idea of what you’re looking at — it’s almost like a speck of pepper in the case that would house the equipment, but not on the equipment,” he said.

To rectify the situation, Atkinson said the Healthcare System opted for a “surgical stand-down” the week of Nov. 11 — cancelling and rescheduling veteran surgeries to later dates at the Healthcare System or at the University.

In Dingell’s letter to the Healthcare System, which followed a phone call with Robert McDivitt, the hospital’s director, she posed several questions about actions the hospital is taking to address the situation and ensure patient safety.

“While recognizing you are cancelling and moving surgeries to ensure no veterans are being put at risk, this situation is still concerning and raises questions about the source of this particulate matter and what actions are being taken to correct the problem,” she wrote.

Dingell told the Daily she does believe the hospital both cares about its patients and is trying to handle the situation appropriately, but at the same time, it is her job to investigate the concerns of her constituents.

She is currently awaiting a response to the questions she posed in her letter Monday.

“I have an obligation to make sure that the veterans are being taken care of and that the hospital has the resources they need,” she said.

Atkinson said patient safety is the hospital’s utmost priority, and it is currently operating on a limited surgery schedule while working to resolve the issue. He said any patient currently scheduled for surgery is being given the option to have their procedures done with any of the Healthcare System’s community partners, such as the University, though the stand-down period is over.

During the stand-down period, the Healthcare System invited national and regional experts to help identify what could be causing the particulate matter to appear on sterilized equipment. Atkinson said they concluded the particulate matter likely originated from a water main break in the area.

However, Dingell said Tuesday afternoon the hospital had not identified a specific cause of the problem when she last spoke with the director on Monday. In the letter, she probes the hospital to determine the cause of the problem.

“As of (Monday) at 12:30, they didn’t know what was causing it,” she said. “We just need to find out the problem, we’ve got to make sure they’ve got the resources … and it’s our responsibility to raise awareness.”

If the complication was in fact caused by a water issue, Dingell discussed looking into whether there is a problem with the hospital’s pipes. She also mentioned constituents were wondering if the presence of the particulates could be related to construction on site.

In the letter, Dingell also specifically asked what steps the hospital has taken to protect patient safety.

Atkinson said since Monday the system has replaced some pieces of equipment and installed more filters in the water system that serves the sterilizers.

He also stressed that no veterans have been put in harm’s way: whenever a nurse would spot particulate matter near equipment, the Healthcare System would use a different set of equipment and send the potentially contaminated case back to be re-sterilized.

“I think we (have) made a lot of progress, but we’re still working to completely resolve the situation,” he said. “We see this as a proactive measure, and we applaud our nurses — they do a diligent job of inspecting the cases to make sure they are prepped and ready to go for surgery.”

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