Ballad patient, among 100 possibly exposed to hepatitis, HIV: ‘I couldn’t believe this could happen’

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Amy Hunter will spend a nerve-wracking weekend waiting to get tested for hepatitis and HIV after Ballad Health informed her Thursday of a potential exposure that occurred after an early May surgery – the result of “an individual who improperly handled controlled substances.”

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster,” Hunter told News Channel 11 Friday. “I haven’t slept, my nerves are tore all to pieces.”

A veteran nurse first alerted supervisors to the possibility of the improper handling, Ballad said in a statement. The violation “occurred during a specific period of time from May-July and on a single patient care unit,” the statement reads.

Amy Hunter, right, and her sister, Victoria Tinsley, review the letter from Ballad Health.

A Ballad representative called Hunter Thursday and recommended she go get tested, at Ballad’s expense.

“I was like, ‘you’re a liar, this is a prank, you know this isn’t very funny, it’s not nice,’” Hunter said. “She was like, ‘I assure you this is anything but a prank.’”

Not long after, the mail arrived. When she saw the envelope from Ballad Hunter’s mindset shifted.

“I had a feeling that it was what she had said it was, that –and then when I opened it my heart just dropped. I mean it’s total fear that can be placed into anybody.”

JCMC-LETTER1Download

The caller had told Hunter she could call back and Ballad would answer any questions. The letter, signed by Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift, left her unsure what to do.

“But when I got the letter and it all sank in I had so many questions as to how could have this have happened, am I gonna have any of these (illnesses). It’s a lot of fear and anxiety that goes along with it because you don’t know.”

JCMC-Statement_July-2021Download

Ballad declined further comment Friday, but the statement said when the veteran nurse, whom Ballad called “a hero,” alerted someone: “Management immediately commenced an investigation, removed the offending individual and notified the Tennessee Department of Health, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and the office of the District Attorney.”

Happy with Ballad experience — until this

Hunter, who has an 11-year-old son, has a history of cancer and had multiple surgeries including a hysterectomy in early May. She said her care was good and the surgery “went great.”

She’d recently been released to return to work.

“I was really excited that everything was healing the way it was supposed to and that I was on the right path to recovery.”

After Thursday’s experience, Hunter said she’s left with countless questions.

Amy Hunter holds the letter she received Thursday from Ballad Health informing her that a nurse’s improper handling of controlled substances could possibly have exposed as many as 100 patients — including her — to two forms of hepatitis or HIV.

“Do they not do regular drug screenings even on people that are coming in?” she said. “I mean there’s so many questions that I do have that I would like to have answered, but.”

Despite her many questions and Ballad’s offer to answer them, Hunter doesn’t have immediate plans to speak to representatives there.

“At this point, I plan on getting an attorney and going from there, because this should not happen to anybody, no matter who it is,” Hunter said.

At first, Hunter was just reeling from the shock. But one of her four sisters, Victoria Tinsley, was immediately wanting answers.

“Figure out how this even happened. That was my main question was like, how, and why,” Tinsley said.

If an attorney tells the family it’s okay to speak to Ballad, Tinsley said she’s ready.

“I’d like to know their steps on what they’re going to do to prevent this from happening again,” Tinsley said. “And I want to know how this happened to begin with and I would love – I have a lot of questions I’d like to ask them.”

While Hunter and Tinsley wonder about how this could have happened, a quick information search shows drug diversion in health care settings is not extremely rare.

A 2019 brief publication from The Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals, highlighted the issue.

It cited statistics that “suggest that about 10 percent of health care workers are abusing drugs.”

The publication said opioid abuse is “a major driver of drug diversion.” Hunter said she was administered an opioid for pain after her surgery.

It said experts believe “only a fraction of those who are diverting drugs are ever caught” — and it listed multiple risks to patients.

Risks included inadequate pain relief and “exposure to infectious diseases from contaminated needles and drugs…”

The paper also noted diversion “can be costly to an organization by damaging its reputation, and may lead to major civil and criminal monetary penalties.”

Ballad’s reputation is damaged in Hunter’s eyes.

She said Ballad offered blood tests and encouraged her to get them there – and that the system said it would provide treatment options at its expense if she were positive for any of the possible viruses. She said she’s not going to return.

“I don’t trust them,” Hunter said. “I trusted them once and look what happened to me. You trust them to take care of you and to give you proper treatment. Not take it from you.”

Now the family, including Hunter’s mother, Tinsley and her other four siblings as well as uncles and aunts, is left to wait through an anxious weekend.

“I hope that the tests come back negative,” Tinsley said. “Because I know that they said it’s low risk and stuff, and I hope and pray that that’s true and just not something to try to calm everybody down with.

“But,” she said before pausing for several seconds — “I’m worried about her.”

Amy Hunter, center, her mom Marlene Wishon and sister Victoria Tinsley are anticipating an anxious weekend ahead of Monday’s blood tests for Hunter.

Tinsley said the sisters, who were born in the same calendar year, are “inseparable.”

“We both cried together, we both (asked) ‘why?’ together. It’s scary.

“And I hope whoever did this, the person responsible is arrested and put in jail for it.”

For her part, Hunter is just wanting the results.

“I’m going to ask them to rush it,” she said. “As anybody probably would.”

She hasn’t yet told her son.

“I’m not really sure how I would approach him to have a conversation like that with him, because I don’t want him to have any fears of going to the doctors. I don’t want to relay my fears on to him.”

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