Legionnaires' victim checked in at VA 2 days after CDC's warning
In the end, hallucinations that he'd been poisoned overtook the faith William Nicklas placed in the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.
Doctors told the World War II veteran on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2012 that he'd contracted Legionnaires' disease, a deadly form of pneumonia. Two days later, as he breathed in short gasps in his hospital bed, his wife of nearly 60 years, Greta, leaned down to kiss him and say goodnight for the last time.
He pushed her away.
“He said, ‘Get out of here. Get out of here ... before you get poisoned. Just get out of here before they get you,' ” recalled their son, Bob Nicklas, 56, of Adams, who was in the room.
The Legionnaires' outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh hospitals in Oakland and O'Hara infected as many as 21 people and is linked to five deaths, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nicklas, who died Nov. 23, appears to be the most recent death, though neither the CDC nor the VA Pittsburgh would disclose names, citing privacy laws.
Families of patients who died during the outbreak told the Tribune-Review that VA administrators failed to warn them about Legionella bacteria in the VA water pipes and haven't answered their questions about why administrators didn't do more.
“It shouldn't take forever for the truth to come out,” said William Nicklas' son, David, 46, of Hampton. “Somebody is going to answer to this family to what the heck truly happened in that hospital. Until I take my last breath, I'm going to find out what actually happened there.”
The CDC told the VA on Oct. 30 that Legionella bacteria in the Oakland hospital's water system matched bacteria infecting three patients. Yet, the VA didn't publicly disclose the outbreak in its water system for 17 days.
VA Pittsburgh spokesman Dave Cowgill said the delay occurred because the three patients had not been in the same area of the hospital from where the water sample came, so “we were unsure as to how they acquired it and that's why the CDC was asked to visit the facility and perform an investigation with us.”
William Nicklas checked himself into the hospital on Nov. 1 because he was dehydrated and had a negative reaction to new heart medication, his family said — two days after the CDC warned the VA about the patient-water match.
On Nov. 7, the CDC began an investigation that found Legionella throughout the VA Pittsburgh's water system, according to CDC epidemiologist Lauri Hicks' testimony at a congressional hearing Feb. 5.
On Nov. 15, workers began flushing water lines to combat the bacteria.
Nicklas' family said their first warning about the outbreak came when they found a pamphlet about the disease lying on a table in his hospital room, and signs throughout the building advising patients and visitors not to use water fixtures and fountains.
Dr. Robert Muder, the VA Pittsburgh's chief of infectious diseases, told Nicklas' family two weeks after he died that he wasn't in the part of the building with bacteria-contaminated water lines, Greta Nicklas said.
Muder called her the day before her husband's funeral, she said. It was the first time an infectious diseases doctor from the VA spoke to them, the family said.
“He gave me his condolences. I thanked him. He started by saying, ‘You know, Mrs. Nicklas, your husband was critically ill when he came here.' I said, ‘No, he wasn't. He walked into that hospital on his own. He was not critically ill,' ” she said.
She said Muder told her that her husband “ ‘wasn't on the floor where they had the problem.' I said, ‘You mean to tell me they had it on every other floor but the fifth?' I said, ‘I don't believe that.' I said, ‘I think it was throughout the whole hospital.' He didn't answer me.”
Muder referred Trib questions about the call to Cowgill, who said the VA would not comment on pending legal claims. The Nicklas family has filed a notice of intent to sue the VA.
Adam Smeltz, Luis Fábregas and Mike Wereschagin are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Smeltz at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Fábregas at 412-320-7998 or email@example.com. Reach Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Artist born without arms, legs gives Hampton students peek into her world
- 10th DUI earns Uptown man 1st prison sentence
- Fired Plum officer won’t get job back
- Bangladeshis to speak at Pitt in program against sweatshops
- Wolf’s education proposal gets mixed reviews
- Lawrenceville man charged with rape, child pornography and 27 other sexual offenses
- Pittsburgh’s Downtown tops ranking of small to midsized cities
- McKees Rocks father allegedly wanted to kill unborn
- Whistleblower claims Allegheny County’s human services director violated 2003 lawsuit settlement
- Teacher conduct under spotlight in Pennsylvania
- Inmate care in Allegheny County Jail generates worries