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Cause of Exeter Hospital 'illness' still unknown

By JASON SCHREIBER
Union Leader Correspondent

August 16. 2017 9:13PM
Ambulances lined up outside Exeter Hospital's emergency department as medical personnel assisted workers who fell ill Friday morning. (Jason Schreiber/Union Leader Correspondent)

EXETER — Nearly a week after 19 workers at Exeter Hospital suddenly felt dizzy and nauseous inside the operating department, officials say the cause of the illness remains a mystery.

The hospital said it’s conducting an internal investigation in hopes of finding the source, but so far no one has been able to pinpoint the culprit.

“We would all love to have found a spill, a leak, a liquid that was vaporizing, or maybe someone kicked over a five-gallon bucket in the janitor’s closet, but when you’re dealing with vapor and air it’s far more difficult to trace where it came from,” Assistant Fire Chief Eric Wilking said.

The scare began unfolding around 9 a.m. on Aug. 11 when a handful of staff members in the operating department began experiencing mild symptoms that included dizziness and nausea. The symptoms eventually spread to other workers, forcing the hospital to temporarily close its inpatient operating department and emergency department as a precaution.

Ambulances transported 12 of the 19 sickened workers to other hospitals for treatment. All were released later in the day.

Fire investigators and other environmental experts spent hours searching for a cause, but came up empty-handed.

According to Jake Leon, director of communications for the state Department of Health and Human Services, the hospital immediately notified state agencies to the emergency situation when it occurred.

Leon said DHHS was among several local, state and federal agencies that responded, including the National Guard Civil Support Team and a Seacoast regional hazardous materials team.

“DHHS remained in close contact after the emergency was resolved to ensure that the emergency department and operating room were safe to resume operations and that the entire facility was safe for the patients receiving care at Exeter Hospital,” Leon said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Wilking said the Fire Department has not been involved in the investigation since the day of the incident. While officials were unable to determine the cause, they found that whatever sickened the workers was no longer present and the inpatient operating department and emergency department were turned back over to the hospital. Both departments have since reopened.

An anesthesia leak was rumored as a possible cause during the initial investigation, but Wilking said that couldn’t be ruled in or out.

“We didn’t pick up any gas on any meters. … Obviously something was there between 9, 10, 11 o’clock that they breathed in and became exposed. Over time it self-corrected,” he said.

Wilking said the Fire Department responds to numerous calls for odor investigations, but doesn’t always find a cause.

“In our line of work it’s not odd to have incidents that end up being unsolved or undetermined,” he said.

jschreiber@newstote.com


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