updated 8/13/2007 12:22:39 PM ET 2007-08-13T16:22:39

Patients of Duke University hospitals who were exposed to surgical tools cleaned in used hydraulic fluid still blame the mistake for their health problems despite a Duke-commissioned study that suggests otherwise.

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Of 3,648 patients who were exposed at Duke Raleigh and Durham Regional hospitals in late 2004, just one patient has filed a lawsuit against Duke.

Others have sued an elevator company and medical supply company that contributed to the mix-up of putting hydraulic fluid in a container used to carry detergent for surgical instruments.

Shelley Bassett is among a handful of patients who haven’t filed lawsuits but believe the mix-up triggered a series of their health problems. The 34-year-old mother of two had a breast biopsy at Duke Raleigh in December 2004. Her breast swelled after the surgery, and since then, she has had had diarrhea, vomiting, fevers, searing hip pain, constipation, a staph infection and deteriorating vision.

A doctor recently diagnosed her with an autoimmune disease. Bassett said she was healthy before the surgery. She’s now on seven different drugs.

“I think it’s absurd that (Duke) can say nobody’s sick,” she said. “I think it’s unfair, and it’s propaganda.”

Bassett and other patients have just a few more months to file lawsuits before a three-year statute of limitations protects the hospital.

'Half an answer'
Duke points to the results of a $1 million independent study, released at the end of July, that found nearly 90 percent of patients exposed to the fluid had no clinical problems in the two years afterward. The exposure did not result in higher illness rates, given the age of patients, than what would be expected in the general population, the study said.

But Steve Marshall, an epidemiologist and biostatistician with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Public Health, questioned why the study didn’t compare Duke’s patients with a separate but similar group that wasn’t exposed.

“What you have is half an answer,” Marshall said.

Michael Cuffe, Duke University Health Systems vice president for medical affairs, said the study wasn’t as comprehensive as a formal research project but was the best study Duke could produce given certain limitations. He said it wasn’t possible to get the consent of all the patients given the circumstances.

“Many people wanted to put this behind them,” he said. “Others didn’t trust Duke and wouldn’t want to participate.”

Bennie W. Holland Jr., the lone patient to sue the hospital, dropped his lawsuit last year but promised to revive it when he was sure a jury, not an arbitrator, would hear the case.

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