SEATTLE — One parent believes Seattle Children’s may have misled her about why her daughter’s surgery was delayed in February of this year.
The hospital has battled the continued presence of Aspergillus, a common mold, in its operating and procedural rooms. Children's shut down all of its operating rooms Wednesday due to the ongoing problem. Officials say the mold is responsible for the death of one young patient and the infection of up to seven other children.
Janae Crowder’s six-year-old daughter, Brooke, has had nine surgeries since being diagnosed with Spina bifida.
When she arrived at Children’s in February, the hospital told Crowder a long-planned surgery was delayed because of the “humidity” and the “weather outside.”
“It didn’t make sense. They were sending families home left and right. I had a feeling something else wasn’t right. It was just the way they rushed us out of there,” Crowder said.
Days after she and her daughter returned home to their Sandpoint, Idaho apartment, Crowder contacted KING 5.
KING 5 HealthLink reporter Amity Addrisi contacted Children’s and was told the same thing.
Brooke’s surgery was canceled “…due to low humidity in the hospital’s operating rooms caused by the cold, dry weather conditions,” Children’s Public Relations Manager Alyse Bernal said in a March 6 email.
Brooke’s surgery finally took place later in March.
Then, a few months later, a letter arrived telling Crowder that Brooke was at a slight risk for Aspergillus infection from the procedure.
Crowder now believes the reason for her daughter’s delayed surgery was because of the faulty ventilation equipment at the hospital, more so than the weather.
"I wish they would have been more honest and let us know, 'Hey, we’ve had mold before and this might be the problem. Are you comfortable with doing the surgery with your daughter?'" Crowder said.
Children’s stands by the explanation that it gave Crowder and KING 5. Medical literature does say that outside weather conditions -- including humidity -- can influence the carefully controlled climate inside an operating room.
However, after a string of illnesses caused by Aspergillus, the hospital purchased new HVAC equipment this summer, including a new humidification system.
KING 5 requested records from Public Health of Seattle & King County several months ago, when the hospital first admitted that the mold was spreading throughout the ventilation system that controls the climate in its operating rooms.
Among records from county and state health departments that have been released, the KING 5 Investigators found:
- A Children’s employee filed a 2017 whistleblower complaint reporting mold in the hospital’s HVAC system. A Washington Department of Health inspector followed up and determined “the allegation there was an ongoing issue with mold is not substantiated.”
- In 2018 a surgeon reported “debris falling out of an air diffuser” in an operating room and “into an open abdomen during (a) surgical procedure.”
- Later in 2018, the hospital approved a document called a “Reactive Media Statement.” It instructed the public relations department to refrain from informing the media about the ongoing mold contamination. It said PR staff should provide pre-approved answers “only if asked.”
In court in October, Children’s legal team argued that additional health department records should not be made available to KING 5.
Children’s counsel Adrian Urquhart Winder said state law protects information gathered by the hospital’s quality improvement committee. She said that information about the mold infection was shared with the county health department and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) through the hospital’s quality control team.
“This is a routine part of their quality assurance, quality improvement process that they consult with outside experts,” Winder said.
KING 5 lawyer Michele Earl-Hubbard countered that the hospital wanted to withhold documents provided by the CDC and the health department, including test results from public agencies.
“They don’t get to change the public nature of this information. The public has a right to know ‘What did the government (agencies) do?'" Hubbard said.
On Nov. 1, King County Superior Judge Ken Schubert ruled mostly in favor of Children’s hospital.
Days later he granted a preliminary injunction.
Schubert said he will order the release of some additional information, but he said most of the health department records are protected by the statute that shields the quality improvement process.
KING 5 management is deciding whether to appeal that decision.