The mother of one of 10 infants hit by a potentially lethal superbug at UC Irvine Medical Center disputed this week the hospital administration's claim that parents were told about the outbreak.
Briana Walker of Mission Viejo said the hospital staff did not explain when her son tested positive for the bacteria last month that other infants were already being treated for the same infections. She had begun to believe, she said, that her husband or another family member had unknowingly brought the superbug into the intensive care unit from outside.
Now, after piecing the evidence together, Walker knows that the hospital staff had moved a baby who had already been sickened by the outbreak to the room next to her son's. About a week later, she said, her son tested positive.
"That baby should never have moved next door," she said. "To learn now they knew this had been spreading since August — why would you do that?"
Walker's comments conflict with what the hospital told The Times last week. John Murray, a UCI spokesman, said then that hospital staff members had been advised to inform parents of the babies sickened or colonized by the bacteria about the ongoing outbreak.
Her story also raises questions about whether the hospital did everything possible to keep the infections from spreading.
Murray said Tuesday that the hospital was sorry for not telling the parents more about the infections caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA.
"After speaking to several parents of neonatal intensive care unit patients, it is clear that we fell short of our goal to keep them fully informed about MRSA and our infection prevention efforts," he said. "Though this was not intentional, we deeply apologize and will do better."
Murray did not explain why the staff had moved an infant already sickened with MRSA to the room next to Walker's son.
The superbug is especially dangerous for premature infants, who are often seriously ill to begin with, requiring catheters and ventilators to stay alive.
The hospital said none of the babies died from the MRSA infections.
According to the hospital, the outbreak in the neonatal intensive care unit began in August, when the first baby tested positive for MRSA.
Walker's son tested positive for the bacteria March 6, according to his medical records.
The hospital said the source of the infants' infections remains a mystery.
"We believe the infection prevention efforts that have been validated by state and county health officials give us the best chance to eradicate the bacteria," Murray said Tuesday. "Currently, all infants in our NICU and all staff that provide care for them are negative for MRSA."
Walker said she only learned about the circumstances surrounding her son's MRSA diagnosis by continuing to ask questions.
When she was told March 10 that her son had tested positive for the bacteria, the staff had explained that MRSA "can be found anywhere," she said.
Later she overheard staff in the intensive care unit talking about two other babies testing positive for MRSA. She asked a doctor to confirm that, which he did.
"They made it sound like it was a coincidence" that three babies had the same diagnosis, she said.
Walker said she was stunned to learn last week from The Times' report that 10 babies had been infected by MRSA, the first one in August.
"I didn't know he was one of 10," she said. "It took me so off guard. No parents should see a headline on the nightly news and realize it's about your child."
Walker said she was crushed by the news of the outbreak because she had credited the hospital's doctors and nurses with "giving my child life."
The hospital's doctors had been the only ones in Orange County willing to treat her during a high-risk pregnancy. Her previous doctors had suggested that she end the pregnancy, Walker said. She spent more than a month in the hospital on bed rest before her son was born Feb. 6.
"I never had one bad nurse," she said. "They loved these children like moms do.
"I'm a hurt mom who just wants hospital administration to know that I'm not OK with them protecting their money over my child," she said.
Walker said she had been surprised when, soon after her son tested positive in early March, a group of Orange County health officials arrived in the unit. They performed an inspection, she said, and asked questions about hand washing and infection control procedures.
"No one told me why all of a sudden it was becoming such a large issue," she said.
Patty Lozano of Anaheim said her son was staying in the same room as Walker's son when the staff abruptly moved her child to the hospital's second intensive care unit. The staff told her the move was because of "short staffing."
Lozano later spoke to Walker, who described how her son had tested positive for MRSA. When Lozano asked the staff about that, she said, they denied that there was a larger problem.
"They said there was no need to worry about it at all," Lozano said.
Lozano said her son had tested negative for MRSA.
Last week, the hospital said officials quickly moved to stop the outbreak after a county lab confirmed in the middle of December that bacteria from the first five infants were all the same strain.
By the end of December, seven infants had been sickened, the hospital said. Another baby tested positive in late February, they said, and two more in March. Walker's son appears to be one of the last to test positive.
Doctors told Walker her son had been colonized with the bacteria in places on his skin, but was not sickened with fever or other symptoms. He tested negative for the bacteria when he went home March 23, she said.
The hospital is continuing to clean all equipment and surfaces in the intensive care units, Murray said last week. In January and February, more than 220 staff members who work in the unit used antiseptic soap and ointment to reduce bacteria on their skin and noses.
Four staff members tested positive for MRSA in January, he said, but have since tested negative.
The Times learned about the outbreak from Marian Hollingsworth, who sits on a state advisory committee on hospital-acquired infections and filed a complaint about it with the state. She had been told about the infections by an employee who works on the hospital complex.
The county health department said last week that officials did not notify the public of the outbreak because they had no evidence that infants being treated at the hospital's neonatal unit were at higher risk than babies admitted elsewhere.