Pentagon apologizes to Minnesota soldier for conditions at Walter Reed hospitalby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio
Most of the news coverage about substandard care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. has focused on problems with some of the facility's outpatient living quarters. Three high-level Army officials have resigned as a result of the scandal.
Minnesota Public Radio asked veterans and their family members in our audience to share their experiences with Walter Reed. What we got back were allegations of unclean and potentially unhealthy conditions -- not in the outpatient facility, but in Walter Reed hospital itself.
Sartell, Minn. — Pete and Chris Knutson know first-hand about problems Walter Reed that many Americans are only now becoming familiar with.
"My first reaction was, it's about time," says Pete Knutson.
The Knutsons live just outside of St. Cloud in Sartell with their three daughters. Pete was deployed with the Minnesota Army National Guard to Kosovo a few years ago. He ended up at Walter Reed in the summer of 2004 to begin treatment for leukemia.
"I arrived, I think, at Walter Reed the middle of June and I think I started chemotherapy the next day," Knutson recalls.
Chemotherapy is designed to kill cancer cells. It also dramatically weakens the immune system. Because of the nature of Knutson's illness, he was staying in Walter Reed's hospital itself, not in one of the outpatient buildings which have been the subject of all of the recent attention.
As Pete Knutson underwent chemo at Walter Reed, he and his wife became concerned about sanitary conditions in his hospital rooms.
"Pete dropped some Jell-O on the floor one day, and I just wanted to see how long it would take for them to clean it up," Chris Knutson recalls. "It was three days before the Jell-O was picked up. Once the piece of Jell-O was finally picked up, the spot was never cleaned."
Chris ultimately took it upon herself to clean the first and second of Pete's hospital rooms.
"I went to Target and bought cleaning supplies. I sprayed it (the room) down with like ammonia or bleach, and scrubbed them with anything that I could find," says Chris.
She says the hospital's medical staff was aware of the cleaning problems and encouraged her to file a formal complaint, which she says she did.
"The complaint said that the rooms were barely swept. There was about an inch of dust behind the televisions," Chris says.
"They would sweep around the room, but frequently there wasn't even a mop even in the room. If there was a mop, it was a cloth one that was gray. So you knew that the mop, even if they were pushing water around, wasn't being cleaned," says Chris.
Besides worrying about cleanliness, the Knutsons came to question basic chemotherapy protocol at Walter Reed. Chris says at Walter Reed she and her husband saw relaxed standards for safeguarding against infection, compared to procedures at civilian hospitals.
Following his time at the Army facility, Knutson was treated in central Minnesota and at a University of Minnesota hospital in the Twin Cities.
"In St. Cloud or Fairview, if they're (patients) neutropenic -- if they have no immune system -- you could not use the bathrooms in the patient's room," says Chris. "At Walter Reed, that was never an issue. Anybody could use anything in the patient's room. If I needed a wash cloth, use the facilities -- anything...it was fine."
The Knutsons suspect filth in Pete's Walter Reed hospital rooms could have contributed to an infection that Pete contracted while there.
"According to these records, I had a period of probably three or four days where I spiked a very high temperature and ... that could be caused by uncleanliness, says Pete Knutson. "But they didn't say that. I can't prove that."
While the Knutsons can't help but think the dirty conditions played a role in Pete's infection, Pete says he understands chemo patients sometimes experience infections and high fevers.
The response to the Knutsons' complaint about the cleanliness of Pete's rooms, according to Pete and Chris, was, "Thanks for reporting your concerns. The hospital will keep them in mind the next time the custodians' contract is up for renewal."
Minnesota Public Radio News contacted the Pentagon about the Knutsons experience at Walter Reed.
"I want to apologize for any inconvenience that the soldier, a patient, and his wife may have experienced while they were there at the hospital," U.S Army spokesman Paul Boyce says.
Boyce said the Army would revisit the Knutsons' concerns.
"We are certainly trying to make certain that the hospital rooms are clean and neat," Boyce said. "They have a 15-point inspection program that they do after the housekeeping crews have been through the rooms. I don't know what may have happened in this particular room, but we are very grateful to the soldier and his wife for bringing it to our attention and we're looking into it now."
So far, the Walter Reed scandal has focused on conditions at some of the medical center's outpatient quarters. Boyce says the hospital itself generally generates very positive patient reviews. He says this inquiry generated by the Knutsons' experience is the first of its kind.
"We've received no other calls quite like this one," Boyce said.
Pete Knutson says the Army's apology means little to him. He says he wanted out of Walter Reed as soon as possible. He took advantage of a then-relatively new program that allowed soldiers to recieve care closer to home.
The Knutsons have come a long way from Walter Reed and chemotherapy. Pete's bone marrow/stem cell transplant at the U of M hospital was successful. He's back at work and the family is putting itself back together.
In addition to spending time in civilian hospitals since leaving Walter Reed, Pete Knutson says he has been treated at the St. Cloud and Minneapolis Veterans Administration facilities. He says they're busy places, but they're clean.