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Lawyer: Autopsy shows fungal infection among causes of woman's death in UPMC hospital

Ben Schmitt
| Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015, 11:40 p.m.
UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland

A Pittsburgh attorney for one of the patients in UPMC's mold crisis disputes the health giant's claims that none of the deaths can directly be attributed to fungal infections.

James Dattilo of Dattilo & Associates represents the daughter of Tracy Fischer, 47, of Erie, who died Oct. 1 in UPMC Presbyterian. Fischer underwent a heart transplant June 18 because of heart failure. Dattilo released a UPMC autopsy report by Dr. Jeffrey Nine, who determined multiple causes of death, including the fungal infection, mucormycosis, heart failure and cardiovascular disease.

“To the best of my knowledge, this 47-year-old woman died of angioinvasive mucormycosis as a complication of post-transplant immunosuppression following orthotopic heart transplantation,” Nine, a UPMC pathologist, wrote Oct. 2, 2014, in a final autopsy report.

Dattilo said he has been retained to investigate a potential lawsuit.

“It deeply bothers the family that UPMC made statements that there is no confirmation that the fungus caused any of these deaths,” he said. “That is the only reason I am putting the autopsy out there. Fungal infections clearly played a role.”

Privacy laws prohibit UPMC from addressing specific patient cases, officials said. However, Dr. Steven Shapiro, UPMC's chief medical and scientific officer, said in response to questions that “We again extend our sympathies to the families of the three deceased patients who battled courageously against multiple life-threatening conditions. While each case was unique, all of them had very difficult prognoses with or without the complicating infection.”

In the past year, four transplant patients — three of whom died — were diagnosed with fungal infections in Presby and UPMC Montefiore. The survivor, Che DuVall, 70, a lung transplant patient from Perryopolis, remains hospitalized in Presby with a fungal infection in his lungs. The Trib reported Tuesday that his wife, Karen DuVall, has retained Pittsburgh attorneys Jerry Meyers and Brendan Lupetin from Meyers Evans & Associates, Downtown.

The infections prompted UPMC to suspend its transplant program for six days. It reopened Sunday.

Meanwhile, Allegheny General Hospital officials said Tuesday that two heart transplant patients there contracted mold infections in 2014. One patient died and one survived, Allegheny Health Network spokesman Dan Laurent said.

“These cases were deemed to be unrelated to each other, and neither met the criteria for a hospital acquired condition,” Laurent said.

The AGH patients had aspergillus, which is different from the types of mold the UPMC patients contracted.

“AGH's infection control team completed a comprehensive assessment of the hospital facility in response to them, and no evidence of aspergillus or any other mold was found in the environment,” Laurent said.

UPMC has identified the types of mold in Presby and Montefiore hospitals as rhizomucor, lichtheimia and rhizopus, part of a family of molds known as mucormycetes. The infections sometimes occur in transplant patients with suppressed immune systems.

In the case involving Fischer, Dattilo acknowledged the autopsy listed multiple causes of death. But he pointed out that the pathologist wrote: “The suspected cause of death is disseminated angioinvasive fungal infection.”

A skin biopsy on Sept. 19, 2014, showed she had a fungal infection. The autopsy showed fungal organisms on Fischer's right lung, heart, spleen and thyroid, Nine wrote.

The autopsy revealed a different form of mold, Candida, on Fischer's lung tissue. Nine wrote that Candida is “a common postmortem contaminant.”

“I don't know what UPMC means when they say they cannot confirm mold contributed to these three deaths,” Dattilo said. “The autopsy makes it very clear that she died of a fungal infection.”

Ben Schmitt is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991.

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