Danger in the air

CREATED Aug 22, 2011

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LAS VEGAS, NV - Imagine having trouble with something as simple as taking a deep breath. Oxygen therapy helps people of all ages stay healthy but a lawsuit filed by a local family says there can be danger in the air. Contact 13 Chief Investigator Darcy Spears looks at one man's near-death experience, and how lax regulation fails to protect patient health.

When you look at a picture of John Perrini, it's almost hard to tell he's there in the bed.

"I got very sick," said John.

It's a stark contrast to the family Christmas picture he'd taken earlier that same month December, 2008.

"To this day, he hasn't bounced back to himself," explained Rita Perrini.

John's illness came on slowly at first.

"Through the first four or five weeks, he lost 22 pounds and he could not talk. I had to lift his lip up in order to get a straw in his mouth to get water. He would not eat. He was near death," said Rita.

"And the pain was excruciating. I couldn't move my head, I couldn't my arms, I couldn't move my body," said John.

John was eventually diagnosed with Sepsis, a dangerous bacterial infection usually seen in hospitals. But John hadn't been in the hospital.

"I thought to myself, what else could it be? Could it be this oxygen that he has been on," said Rita.

John was on oxygen for sleep apnea.

"So you're breathing this air in all night, every night," said Darcy.

"Every night," said John.

The Perrini's say they called Western Home Care, who supplied John's oxygen machine, to send a technician out.

"He says, I don't believe this! He took it out and it was all black," said John.

This filter is what they're talking about.

"He said oh my god! When was the last time this was checked," said Rita.

Turns out, that machine had never been checked since it was first delivered more than five months earlier. Heath Hairr owns Western Home Care.

"My goal from day one has been to see patients within a 60-90 day period. But again, that being said, the manufacturer only recommends that it be checked yearly one time. And so, we're not paid to go out in between 60 and 90 days," said Heath Hairr.

Medicare pays them $200 each month for John Perrini and as for that once a year service he says the manufacturer recommends.

Machine manufacturer Invacare tells me there is no specified service schedule. It's left up to providers like Western Home Care to evaluate the environment a machine is in and decide for themselves when to check or change a filter.

"You take a look at that thing and it was black. That is scary. That means there's something wrong, right," asked Darcy.

"Unfortunately, you didn't get to see it. I didn't get to see it," said Heath.

"You want to see it," said Darcy.

"I'd love to see the filter that came out of there, absolutely," said Heath.

"Here you go. Take a look at the filter that came out of that machine. Is that normal," said Darcy.

"I see a filter that has done its job properly," said Heath.

The Perrini's became increasingly concerned. So after going through two more oxygen machines from Western, they decided to take a filter and machine to a lab for testing.

"We test for mold samples all the time on drywall, tile, things like that. I've never seen it in an oxygen filter before," said Tony Francis, Silver State Analytical Laboratories.

Silver State Labs found traces of rust, smut, slime mold and the filter tested positive for a very dangerous bacteria called Pseudomonas.

"If I knew there was pseudomonas present, I would not want to inhale it," said Francis.

The contaminated filter came out of this side panel inside the oxygen concentrator and when you look at it under a black light, all those fluorescent particles you see are residue of the bacteria.

"Of all the bacteria it's one of the more dangerous ones," said Dr. Dominic Ricciardi.

Dominic Ricciardi is John's doctor.

"It can cause something called Sepsis where the bacteria actually disseminates through the entire body and can be life threatening," Dr. Ricciardi.

It's often referred to as flesh eating bacteria.

"We usually see a lot of pseudomonas issues within hospital settings, people who are on ventilators and such," said Dr. Ricciardi.

"Is there any doubt in your mind that oxygen concentrator was the source of your sickness," asked Darcy.

"No doubt, no doubt at all," said John.

They're so sure, they've filed this lawsuit against western home care and invacare. Barry levinson is their lawyer.

"I'm hoping this changes the way that they do things," said Barry.

Those who oversee them are ripe for change too. Medical equipment companies like Western are regulated by the Nevada Board of Pharmacy and Medicare. The state admits it can only check on companies once a year, and that doesn't involve inspecting the machines.

The Department of Health and Human Services investigated this whole issue back in 1994, and found most patients weren't receiving frequent enough service. But to date, there's still very little protection out there. Just a vague medicare requirement that companies "minimize the chance of infections" and investigate any infections that do that develop "to see if they're related to the equipment."

Heath Hairr doesn't believe Western's machine made John sick.

"Is there a chance for something to get onto anything? Absolutely. But there are millions of people out there on oxygen and this is as far as I can tell the very first time a patient has tried to claim that a filter, because it was doing its job, caused her husband to have this illness," said Heath.

That's a bitter pill for the Perrini's to swallow.

"This was supposed to be something that would help a person, not try to kill them. I damn near almost died," said John.

John's doctor believes he should still be on night time oxygen, but he's too traumatized by what he went through, so he's avoiding it. He's now using a simple inhaler, hoping it will help him breathe better. His family has filed formal complaints asking for investigations from the Nevada state board of pharmacy and medicare.