A medical controversy erupted last week at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset following revelations that a heart surgeon with hepatitis C had infected at least seven patients, two of them from Queens, with potentially fatal cases of the disease.
The case grew more contentious in the medical community after it was revealed that the unidentified surgeon was granted permission by North Shore to continue to perform cardiovascular surgery.
Meanwhile, the New York State Health Dept. ordered the Hospital to track down, and urged the testing of, up to 3,000 patients who may have been exposed over the last decade to the dangerous virus. The disease is the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S.
The issue of patient safety was first raised by the director of the International Health Care Worker Safety Center at the University of Virginia. She called it "unjustifiable" and "incredible" that the surgeon has been permitted to operate despite the fact he appears to have infected several patients. Janine Jagger, who directs the Worker Safety Center, advised patients undergoing surgery at North Shore to ask their surgeons to sign a statement that he or she is negative for hepatitis C, as well as hepatitis B and HIV.
"The risk to the patient," Dr. Pat Basu of Forest Hills, told The Queens Courier, "is the large blood field generated by heart surgery. It results in higher exposure to the patient. Other surgical procedures arent as great a risk factor."
According to Kristine Smith, a spokesperson for the New York State Health Dept., the agency is satisfied with the precautions taken by the heart surgeon. She added that the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention was involved in the decision to allow the surgeon to continue to operate.
"However," she said, "we ordered North Shore to run a practice review of the procedure in which the surgeon wore double gloves and used blunted needles to minimize the risk of any member of the surgical team being stuck by needles."
Smith said that strict rules of informed consent have been imposed. She said the unidentified surgeon must inform heart surgery patients that he may be a likely source of hepatitis C infection.
"So far the system is working," she said. "There have been no cases of hepatitis C since last August. Patients can switch surgeons if they desire."