Woman With Bedbugs Bites Denied Medical Treatment

Was doctor being overly cautious in sending bedbug victim away?

May 31, 2011, 12:27 PM

May 31, 2011— -- Christine Lewis said she was just being honest with the nurse at Colorado's Aurora Medical Center when she showed her the festering bed bug bites on her arms just before she was to have a spinal injection for her back pain.

But when the doctor arrived, instead of showing compassion, Lewis alleges he refused to do the procedure, telling her, "it could be in your hair, it could be in your clothes and we can't have you bring that into our operating room," and then just "ran out the door."

"I was flabbergasted and mortified," Lewis told ABCNews.com. "He totally disregarded me. I told the hospital, now I know how AIDS patients felt 20 years ago. Everything he said implied I was a dirty person, not up to standard and that's not right."

Lewis, 43, has had three back surgeries since she was in a car accident in her teens and was all set to get a nerve-blocking procedure for her dislocated tail bone. A former pharmacy technician, she has been disabled for the last 10 years because of her condition.

"No one ever walked into my pharmacy to show us something that was wrong and we said, 'Ew, wait a minute.' We would say, 'Let me take you to the pharmacists who'll know.' That's what we were taught to do. And we've seen some pretty nasty things at the pharmacy."

Lewis said she had assumed the bites were bedbugs, but "the fact is, [the doctor] couldn't determine if they were bedbugs or bug bites."

"I had been bitten a lot and they were red and inflamed and weepy," said Lewis. "The doctor gave me a perfectly good medical explanation why he didn't want to do the procedure. But then he went on to show ignorance, telling me I could bring the bugs into the hospital on my hair and clothes. They could come in on a delivery truck or anyone who walks in to the hospital. I am not a dirty person. He went too far."

Aurora Medical Center South spokesman Joanna King said that when Lewis disclosed the bedbugs, "standard protocols" were put in place.

"The treatment team consulted our infection prevention nurse, who advised them on cleaning and containment procedures, and advised that from an infection control standpoint they may continue with the spinal injection," said King, who is vice president of human resources and strategic development.

But the doctor, assessing the patient just before the procedure, determined that the bites posed "an increased risk for infection" and decided to reschedule the elective procedure.

As for his behavior, said King, "The medical center and all staff are committed to treating all patients with compassion and dignity and I am confident we did so."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bedbugs are "experts at hiding." They can fit into small spaces and stay for long periods of time without eating. They are usually transported from place to place as people travel in luggage, folded clothes, bedding and furniture. Unlike, other parasites such as ticks or lice, they do not travel on a person's body.

Lewis, who is married, lives with her husband, mother-in-law, sister-in-law and two of her children, said she doesn't intend to sue and isn't even demanding an apology, but just wanted to create public awareness over the way she had been treated. Lewis also refused to reveal the name of the doctor because he will continue to treat her.

Afterwards, Lewis said she went to her primary doctor who was "upset" about the way the hospital handled her case. The bites were, in fact, from bedbugs, according to Lewis, whose doctor gave her antibiotics and the steroid Prednisone to prevent infection.

"I am a diabetic," she said. "The doctor didn't want to take any chances."

Since then, she said she has checked out her home and fumigated for bedbugs.

"They are hard to get rid of," Lewis admitted. "And it's very costly."

Bed Bugs in Hospitals From Colorado to Maine

Hospitals are not immune to bedbug infestations, which have plagued hotels, apartments and movie theaters throughout the country. And a recent study from Canada has suggested that despite previous studies, bedbugs can carry the dangerous staph infection MRSA, which is methicillin-resistant.

Just 10 days ago, the District of Columbia Department of Health confirmed the second case of bedbug infestation at United Medical Center. As a precaution, officials moved patients out of that area and treated at least six rooms with chemicals. Just two months earlier at the same hospital, a patient was discovered with bedbugs in the psychiatric area.

And last fall bedbugs were found at Central Maine Medical Center in New England. According to the Sun Journal newspaper, infestations were also reported at least three other facilities, including a nursing home.

In March, at least five cases of bedbugs were reported at hospitals in Milwaukee, even in examining rooms. "We're seeing cases of bedbugs on a weekly basis. In reality, the bedbugs are coming in on patients," Aurora Health Systems spokesman Adam Beeson told ABC's affiliate WISN-12.

"We then quarantine the area where that individual has been -- clothing, the furniture, etc.," Beeson said. A bedbug sniffing dog is then brought in to isolate the problem, and the room is then treated to make sure the bugs haven't spread.

Colorado has similar protocols, but never turns patients away, according to a report by ABC's Denver affiliate KMGH.

Peggy SaBelle, regional infection prevention and control director for Kaiser Permanente Colorado, said their protocol starts with the first sign of a bedbug.

Infection control is notified, and staff searches for parasites and the patient who may be carrying them. Once the human carrier is found, they are isolated, counseled and treated.

The hospital then advises the patient to hire a licensed pest control company to inspect and treat their home. Patients are also encouraged to store a set of clothes for medical appointments in a sealed plastic bag, then wash and dry them at high heat.

If the patient refuses to comply, Kaiser Permanente staff is advised to discuss home care services with them. Hospital staff clean all surfaces where the patient had contact, then call in pest control for treatment.

"We have a very aggressive plan and it has been very effective," she told KMGH.

Lewis said she followed her end of that protocol, but had not received that advice from the doctor at Aurora Medical Center.