Seattle Children’s Hospital is facing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of families of patients who have been sickened by Aspergillus mold. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Seattle Children’s Hospital is facing a class-action lawsuit on behalf of families of patients who have been sickened by Aspergillus mold. (Sue Misao / Herald file)

Seattle Children’s faces widening array of lawsuits over mold

An investigation found mold at the hospital, but also found no evidence of deficient practices.

By Ryan Blethen / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Beth Hutt is 5 months old and has never been home since her birth in August. She was born with a heart condition and rushed from Tacoma General Hospital to Seattle Children’s, where she has undergone three surgeries, beginning when she was 5 days old.

At some point during her stay at Seattle Children’s, Beth contracted an infection in her heart from the Aspergillus mold, a recurring problem that has sickened patients at the hospital as far back as 2001.

Beth’s parents, Katie and Micah Hutt, knew about the problems Seattle Children’s was having with Aspergillus but said it was a “no-brainer to take her to Children’s.”

“We went into this situation believing that an issue had been found and it was fixed,” Katie Hutt said.

On Wednesday, attorneys pursuing a class-action lawsuit against Children’s on behalf of the families of patients who have been sickened from the mold sought to add Beth Hutt to the case.

The lawsuit, filed in December in King County Superior Court on behalf of four children or their estates, seeks class-action status for patients who were sickened by Aspergillus at Children’s between 2005 and 2017. A fifth patient was added to the complaint before Beth Hutt.

In an emailed response, Seattle Children’s didn’t answer questions about Beth Hutt.

“We are working diligently to resolve these issues, including the claims that have been brought against Seattle Children’s related to past surgical site infections,” the statement read. “We are incredibly sorry for the impact this situation has had on our patients and families.”

Beth’s second surgery was Nov. 7, three days before Children’s administrators closed three of the hospital’s operating rooms, after the hospital announced it had found two possible cases of Aspergillus infections. Children’s closed the remaining operating rooms on Nov. 13 to sanitize them and inspect the air-handling system that serves the rooms.

The state Department of Health (DOH) said Wednesday that it had finished an investigation of the hospital, which it began in November “after the hospital self-reported a case of Aspergillus to us.” The agency said it did discover mold, but found the hospital to be following the state’s rules and found no evidence of deficient practices.

Last year’s problems with Aspergillus weren’t the first for Children’s. In October 2017, inspectors with the DOH cited the hospital for a serious violation over its failure to “implement and monitor an effective infection prevention program.”

In June 2018, Children’s closed two operating rooms and an equipment-storage room for three days after Aspergillus was detected and attributed to small gaps in the walls of the operating rooms.

Children’s problems with Aspergillus came to light again on May 18 last year, forcing it to close four operating rooms for more than six weeks because of the mold.

This time, the Aspergillus was attributed to a gap in the array of air filters in an air-handling unit serving the operating rooms, prompting the hospital to shut down, clean and install new units. Hospital officials wouldn’t say Wednesday if those units were now installed.

Children’s chief executive, Dr. Jeff Sperring, has acknowledged 14 patients had been sickened by Aspergillus since 2001, six of whom died. He said the hospital had “failed” and blamed the hospital for not recognizing a connection between the infections and the air-handling units attached to its operating rooms.

One of the reasons Hutt was added to the lawsuit is because she is one of the most recent patients to be infected by the mold, which gives the complaint representation during a wider time frame, said attorney Karen Koehler, one of the lawyers handling the lawsuit.

Children’s, the region’s premier pediatric hospital, faces a series of lawsuits related to the Aspergillus infections, including a suit filed in December by the family of an 11-year-old boy claiming he was infected during surgery in March 2019, and another that alleges a 4-year-old boy needed a second brain surgery in May related to his risk for Aspergillus exposure during surgery.

Aspergillus is a common mold that most people breathe daily without getting sick, but its risk to hospital patients has been known for decades. Patients with lung disease or weakened immune systems — especially organ- or stem-cell transplant patients — are at higher risk of developing Aspergillosis. In the most serious cases, symptoms range from a fever to coughing up blood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The family of another patient, a teenager who played football, filed suit in late October. That suit alleges the hospital “failed to take reasonably prudent measures to prevent Aspergillus from infecting” their son, leaving him disabled.

Despite the Hutts’ frustration and anger with the hospital’s administration and building services, they don’t hold it against the nurses and doctors who have been working with their daughter.

“We would not trade the level of care we have received for anything,” said Beth’s father, Micah Hutt.

Beth Hutt is still at Seattle Children’s and had another surgery on Jan. 2.

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