Seeking answers, finding only fog


This past week, I received a phone call from a man who wanted to know if what he read on the Summerlin Hospital website from its CEO Robert Freymuller was true.

The man, who said he was trying to decide where to have a gallbladder procedure done, said the CEO bragged that investigators had found the hospital had done nothing wrong when it came to the tuberculosis crisis at the hospital.

Stunned, I confessed to the gentleman that I hadn’t read what was on the website. But I assured him I would.

What I found from Freymuller on the site (www.summerlinhospital.com) was headlined: “NICU TB Exposure — Message from the CEO.”

It didn’t take long for me to conclude that the message did nothing to help an anxious public determine how it came to be that hundreds of people — patients, visitors and employees — have had to be tested for tuberculosis. The disease ultimately took the lives this summer of a woman who gave birth there, Vanessa White, and one of her premature twins (the other twin also died, of complications from premature birth).

The message confused people, particularly its opening line in a paragraph that details the precautions the hospital takes to prevent germs from spreading: “During the Health District’s investigation, it was confirmed that hospital staff followed recommended guidelines.”

In context, the sentence’s intent seemed clear — to reassure people that the Southern Nevada Health District determined the hospital had followed the proper steps to prevent infection.

But I couldn’t believe that was true, especially since I knew the Nevada Bureau of Health Care Quality and Compliance, which essentially polices health care facilities, found that the facility didn’t take basic precautions to prevent infection.

I talked with Dr. Joe Iser, the Health District’s chief health officer, about the CEO’s message. Sure enough, the Health District didn’t determine that Summerlin Hospital had followed proper infection protocol. Iser explained his agency’s role is largely to try to identify a disease source and then keep the disease from spreading.

Iser added that he spoke with Freymuller shortly after the hospital’s TB problem surfaced. He asked, for accuracy’s sake, that the CEO please confer with him before issuing any press releases involving his agency. Instead, Iser said, Freymuller issued a press release without contacting him that said essentially the same thing as the hospital’s website.

When Iser asked Freymuller about it, he said the CEO explained that the sentence in question meant that the hospital did everything it could after TB was found there to help the Health District do its job.

Iser told me he understood how someone might not come up with that interpretation. He added that he did not know whether the CEO deliberately tried to confuse people.

I tried to reach Freymuller, but was shuffled to spokeswoman Gretchen Papez. She sent me an email that she said would clarify what the CEO meant. It didn’t sound much like what Iser said Freymuller told him:

“To clarify, our statement means during the health district’s investigation, the hospital confirmed it had followed its own guidelines and policies for TB.”

Some might say that clarification needs clarification. They might argue the CEO should either be clear about what he means or forget trying to communicate with the public.

But I’m not about to argue that Freymuller should stop using his website to try to calm the infection fears of those who may be considering having procedures at the hospital or who have ill loved ones there now. Writing clearly isn’t easy.

He should keep at it. Practice makes perfect. Soon he’ll be able to shed some light on why it took a probe by the Bureau of Health Care Quality and Compliance investigators to make the hospital promise in writing that it would no longer allow people with symptoms of infectious disease to visit a critical care unit for babies.

And he’ll be able to explain why Vanessa White, whose husband Ruben, says she showed up at the hospital’s emergency room three times with the severe coughing and fever symptoms associated with TB, got screened by a hospital nurse but was never tested for tuberculosis.

Nevada consistently ranks among the top 20 states for its rate of TB cases. And the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health report that Clark County usually accounts for more than 80 percent of about 100 new TB cases in the state each year. So, it’ll be interesting to see whether Freymuller argues that his staff would have needed the incredible diagnostic acumen of TV’s Dr. Gregory House to have a TB test run on White, a woman state investigators said had a 103 degree temperature on a day she visited her baby in the neonatal unit.

To criticize Freymuller for not being clear in his first website attempt at trying to calm the public about Summerlin Hospital’s infection control problem would be wrong. He’ll get the hang of it.

After all, even the president of the United States has run into trouble with his health care website.

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2908.