By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - At the epicenter of one of the worst U.S. health scares in recent history, staff at St. Thomas Hospital have battled around the clock for more than two weeks to the save the lives of patients stricken with meningitis.
The sprawling complex better known as a hospital for heart patients, which sits atop a hill overlooking a wealthy area of Nashville, has treated more than 15 percent of all victims in the nation of a rare form of fungal meningitis.
St. Thomas is the place where doctors first began to realize something was horribly wrong with back pain medications shipped from New England Compounding Center in Massachusetts.
Fifteen people have died of meningitis in six states since the outbreak began. Some 203 people have been sickened with meningitis in 14 states and the numbers continue to mount.
The illness is believed to be linked to fungus contamination in some of the steroid shipped from NECC used mostly for epidural injections to control back pain.
Since the beginning of the month, some 330 patient have gone to the St. Thomas 29-bed emergency room, where the triage area is named after the mother of comedian, actress and star of "Laugh In" Lily Tomlin, whose family is from Nashville and donated privately to the facility.
But it is no laughing matter of late, as two people have died of meningitis at St. Thomas and the hospital has treated 33 of the 53 cases of meningitis in Tennessee, the hardest hit state.
While the hospital has not given patient names, one of the casualties at St. Thomas was Reba Temple, 80, of Centerville, Tennessee, according to a family friend. Temple herself was a former health director of Hickman County.
More than 275 patients have undergone spinal tap tests at the hospital, a painful procedure to determine if they have meningitis.
"That has to be some type of entry for the Guinness Book of World Records, an entry I wish we could have avoided," Dr. Robert Latham, chief of medicine and director of the Infectious Diseases Program at the hospital, said on Friday.
At one point 40 to 45 patients who had received injections were being treated at St. Thomas each day, officials said.
Of those who have survived so far, two remain in critical condition, 28 are in stable condition and on Friday the hospital sent the first of its victims home, where the patient will continue intravenous anti-fungal therapy.
"Our first case (of fungal meningitis) has been in the hospital for over four weeks on continuous anti-fungal therapy," Latham said.
CLINIC GOT MORE VIALS THAN OTHER FACILITIES
Of the 17,676 vials of steroid suspected of being contaminated, 2,000 vials went to the ninth floor of the Nashville hospital, to St. Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgery Center, more than any other facility in the nation. The clinic is not affiliated with the hospital though it is on the property.
Latham, who has worked around the clock and personally supervised the treatment of every infected person at the hospital, praised the staff.
"My involvement with these patients has also made me a key eyewitness to another extraordinary story -- one of selfless sacrifice and caring among nurses, associates and physicians who have come forward to help in ways that I never imagined," Latham said.
He said hospital employees ranging from telephone operators answering calls from scared patients to heart doctors who volunteered to work in the ER have helped the hospital cope with what was a "horrific" situation.
St. Thomas is not out of the woods yet. On Friday, officials confirmed another 111 patients of the Outpatient Neurosurgery Center in the building may have received tainted medicine from one of the lots as early as early June. Some of them may have to come in for tests.
(Reporting by Tim Ghianni; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)