In Sept. of 2006, life changed instantly for Victoria and Armando Nahum.
"Our son lived in Colorado. He was a skydiving instructor," Victoria said. "We get a phone call that he hit the ground at 55 miles an hour."
Their 27-year-old son, Joshua Nahum, was admitted to the hospital with a broken femur and a fractured skull. He improved, and a few weeks later went to physical rehabilitation. Doctors said he'd be good as new in about a year, but then, his condition took a turn for the worse.
Six days into physical rehab, Victoria and Armando Nahum got a phone call. Gram negative bacteria had found its way into their son's cerebral spinal fluid. The infection caused swelling around the brain and paralyzed him. Two weeks later, he died.
"An accident of this sort is not acceptable," said Victoria Nahum. "Your children aren't supposed to die before you."
To make matters worse, this wasn't the first time the Nahum family had been impacted by infections while receiving medical care - it was the third.
Armando Nahum's father survived healthcare-associated pneumonia while recovering from a heart attack, and Victoria Nahum developed a staph infection after a breast augmentation.
"And then, the light bulb went off and we went, 'What?' It's not different things happening, oh bad luck, bad luck, bad luck. It's the same thing happening over, and over and over again," she said.
And it does happen over and over again, more often than hospitals would like to admit.
According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States acquire infections in healthcare facilities every year.
Nearly 99,000 of them die from those infections. That's more than the annual deaths from car accidents, AIDS and breast cancer combined.
So why does it happen?
"The delivery of medical care is very, very complex. There are a number of things that we need to do for patients to make them well and in the process of doing some of those things, we can put them at risk for infections," said Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, Associate Director for prevention of healthcare-associated infections at the CDC.
Some of the most common bacteria that wreak havoc on healthcare facilities include MRSA and Clostridium difficile, C. diff for short.
And there's a new drug-resistant superbug on the block called CRE that's really giving experts a run for their money.
Srinivasan says society encourages these drug-resistant bacteria through the overprescription and misuse of antibiotics.
"There are some studies that suggest that about half of the antibiotics we use are either not needed or we're not using them the right way," Srinivasan said.
According to the CDC, more than 70 percent of the bacteria that cause these infections are resistant to at least one of the antibiotics commonly used to treat them.
"They have the advantages of numbers, there are trillions and trillions of bacteria. And they're always evolving, so any time we develop a way to combat them they will eventually evolve a way around it, so it's a constant struggle," Srinivasan said.
But the healthcare industry is working to get ahead of this crisis by tracking infections, reporting them, and most importantly, preventing the spread of infection in the first place.
For example, WellStar Health System uses a robotic cleaning machine that disinfects surfaces with ultraviolet light without chemicals or contact.
"So we are seeing great progress, we just need to see uniform progress. We need to see every facility doing all of the things that are necessary to deliver safe care every time they do it," Srinivasan said.
And of course, the first line of defense is simply washing your hands and asking doctors, nurses and visitors to do the same.
"Hand washing is fundamental. It is probably the simplest and single-most important thing we can do to keep ourselves safe and keep those around us safe," Srinivasan said.
To help raise awareness, the Victoria and Armando Nahum created the Safe Care Campaign.
With help from the CDC and Kimberly-Clark, the campaign aims to educate patients on how to protect themselves. They produced a video, modeled after the safety videos you see on airplanes. Patients can now access this information 24/7 from their hospital beds.
"We have to watch out for ourselves. We only have one body, we only get one life," said Victoria Nahum.
In light of the tragedy that cut his life short, Victoria and Armando Nahum have dedicated their lives to educating others in loving memory of their son.
"It feels like our son didn't die for no reason. He didn't just die and that's the end of him. Maybe we can keep other people from experiencing what we experienced," said Victoria Nahum.
The number one thing patients can do is wash their hands often. And don't be afraid to ask doctors, nurses and visitors to do the same.
Also, bring somebody with you - a trusted friend or family member - for back-up while you're in the hospital. If you don't have someone, the hospital can supply a patient advocate for you.
If you're having surgery, ask the doctor what is the infection rate for that particular procedure. Losing weight, quitting smoking, and reducing alcohol intake before surgery can also help patients fight infection.
Click here for the Safe Care Campaign's safety checklist.
Click here for Kimberly-Clark's infection prevention checklist.
Click here to see published infection rates for a particular hospital.
Using Antibiotics Appropriately
One thing everyone can do to help cut down on infections is stop the overprescription and misuse of antibiotics.
The next time your child has a sore throat, remember that antibiotics only work on bacterial infections, not viral. So if your doctor says it's viral, don't pressure him to prescribe antibiotics. They'll only make future illnesses tougher to treat.
If you are taking antibiotics to fight a bacterial infection, make sure you're taking them as prescribed. Srinivasan said many people tend to stop taking them as soon as they begin to feel better, but you should always follow doctor's orders and take them until they're gone.
Copyright 2013WGCL-TV(Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.
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