TAMPA — Last spring, three young cancer patients died within a month of one another after stays at St. Joseph's Hospital.
But cancer didn't kill them, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Attorney Steve Yerrid says the children were exposed to a dangerous fungus released during a hospital construction project. Their immune systems already weakened by disease, the children succumbed to mold-related infections, the suit alleges.
The children's parents are suing the hospital for negligence, contending that it failed to protect its most vulnerable patients. Yerrid, who has a track record of winning large verdicts against local health care providers, spoke Tuesday on behalf of the families.
"They know that the system can never bring back their children," he said. "But they know that the system can deliver safety for other children."
Though she could not comment specifically on the lawsuit or the patients, St. Joseph's spokeswoman Lisa Patterson said the hospital is careful to use barriers and filter the air around its construction areas.
"Anytime we do any kind of construction we follow all the necessary precautions," she said. "Obviously, patient safety is the top priority for the children's hospital."
As part of a $1 million renovation to its children's oncology center, St. Joseph's last year tripled the size of the outpatient area where young cancer patients receive their chemotherapy, creating private treatment rooms equipped with flat-screen TVs.
The children represented in Yerrid's lawsuit had been formally admitted to the hospital, and spent many of their final days in rooms one floor above the construction activity.
The lawsuit says the hospital did not guard those rooms from contaminated dust and airborne particles generated by the demolition and removal of plaster walls and ceiling tiles.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2 million infections from a variety of causes are acquired each year in health care settings, resulting in 90,000 deaths.
Yerrid's lawsuit details three sad and parallel fates.
Mathew Gliddon, 5, battled acute lymphoblastic leukemia on and off for three years. The cancer attacks the body's white blood cells, which normally fight infections.
Last March, his parents, Mathew and Karen Gliddon, expressed concerns to St. Joseph's infection control nurse about fumes and odors that seeped into their son's room from smokers and vehicles outside the hospital. They also worried about children sharing the same passageways with construction workers when they were transported to the main hospital for services, the lawsuit states.
That month, doctors removed most of young Mathew's nose due to an invasive nasal sinus fungal infection. He died on April 16, 3½ weeks after doctors discharged him. An autopsy showed that his death was caused by chemotherapy and a fungi infection.
Sierra Kesler, 9, died May 3. Born with Down's syndrome, she also was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
She was admitted to St. Joseph's several times in early 2008 for pneumonia, sinusitis and a cancer relapse. In April, after her cancer was back in remission, Sierra returned to the oncology ward for treatment. After several weeks there, she experienced significant respiratory distress and, according to the lawsuit, contracted a fatal lung infection caused by mold.
Her autopsy listed the cause of death as fungal pneumonia with underlying leukemia.
Kaylie Gunn-Rimes, 2, suffered from infantile acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She spent three weeks on the first floor at St. Joseph's Hospital in January 2008 getting treated for an allergic drug reaction. Tests showed no recurrent cancer.
By February, she developed a lung infection caused by mold. She died May 13 of respiratory failure.
Each child's infection was linked to aspergillus, a common mold found virtually everywhere, including in soil, air and construction dust. Most people breathe it in every day without harm. But the mold can cause serious or deadly infections in people who have undergone chemotherapy or organ transplants.
"In normal people we live with them, and they don't cause infection in us because our bodies are able to repel them," said Dr. Russell Vega, chief medical examiner for Sarasota, Manatee and Desoto counties. "It's not until our bodies become compromised … that those normally innocuous bacteria and fungi can get a foothold in the body and cause disease."
Yerrid could not say whether other children had suffered from mold infections at St. Joseph's. Similar cases of patients dying or becoming seriously ill after being exposed to mold in hospitals have been reported in recent years in Colorado, New York and Australia.
Patterson, the hospital spokeswoman, said St. Joseph's has an infection control team that works to ensure a clean and healthy environment. Hospital procedure includes preventive maintenance rounds and measuring air quality, she said.
Yerrid, 59, says those efforts fell short.
"There are simple protocols," he said, "that should and could have been followed."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.