Acting on anthrax— what one lab learned
Nov. 17 was an ordinary Saturday morning in the microbiology
lab at 160-bed Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn. Then a bottle came
off the Bac T Alert continuous-read blood culture analyzer. It was
positive for gram-positive rods.
That wasn’t unthinkable—the lab had seen the same thing
a few months earlier. But then there was a second bottle. Same thing.
A third. And a fourth, all positive, all from a 94-year-old woman
named Ottilie Lundgren. She had been admitted because of fever,
dehydration, general malaise, and shortness of breath. The working
diagnosis was an unexotic, unexciting urinary tract infection.
A few days later, Lundgren was on the front pages of most of the
world’s major newspapers, her house was encircled in police tape,
and the hospital that identified her bacteria as Bacillus anthracis
had visitors from the CDC and the FBI.
The tale of how the microbiology laboratory at Griffin Hospital
detected anthrax in an unlikely patient is not just intriguing for
its lessons about bioterrorism. It’s also a lesson in lab management—a
vindication of mundane managerial decisions that were not in favor
of forming a core lab or forcing key senior technologists with decades
of experience to be cross-trained.
A case in point is Griffin Hospital’s Harold Hebb, a 61-year-old,
30-year veteran of the microbiology bench. When the first bottle
came off the Bac T Alert unit, anthrax was the farthest thing from
his mind. Contamination seemed to be one possibility, he says. "I
was thinking a Bacillus species or even a Clostridium,"
Hebb says. "But all four tubes, two tubes from one site on the patient,
two tubes from another site. Two different times. That patient was
still pumping that organism through her bloodstream. It had to be
real. It had to be from her blood." (The lab had also found gram-negative
rods in her urine.)
Hebb dutifully reported the results to the hospital floor. At
that point, one of Griffin’s two infectious disease specialists,
Lydia Barakat, MD, appeared in the microbiology lab, as she often
does. As Hebb recalls, "She didn’t know the patient. But she half-seriously
and half-jokingly said, ’Oh, looks like anthrax.’ And I said, ’Come
on, Lydia, where in the hell does a 94-year-old lady in the backwoods
of Oxford [Conn.] get a case of anthrax?’" To this day, no one knows.
What remains clear, under the microscope, is that the organisms
in Lundgren were a far cry from the anthrax Hebb had last seen during
his U.S. Army medical technologist training at Fort Sam Houston
in Texas. Says Hebb: "This looked different. This thing had this
big mishmash of dark blue spaghetti strands crisscrossing each other
all over the field. It was a wild strain in the sense that it was
coming from a living person, so the growth was more robust."
As Hebb admits, a close working relationship with the infectious
disease physicians was part of the reason the diagnosis was made
correctly. Anthrax, he says, wasn’t high on his own list of possibilities.
Hebb believes easy communication with the infectious disease staff—the
product of close, regular collaboration for years—was the
key. "These are two great people," Hebb says of Griffin’s infectious
disease physicians. "They are always down here. They are an integral
part of this department and this hospital. We expect to see them
on a daily basis."
Hebb is reluctant to speak highly of himself. But he allows that
a full-time technologist specializing in microbiology may have had
an edge in detecting a rare organism like Bacillus anthracis.
"There are cross-trained people who can be very good in micro,"
he says. "But a person who does microbiology all of the time is
more likely to pick up on some of the esoteric stuff a little faster."
Sylvia Corbit, the section supervisor in the hospital’s microbiology
department, says Hebb did not have to scramble to find information
on anthrax. It was all at his fingertips. "We had collected all
that stuff months before," Corbit says. "He took out all the CAP
articles we had, CDC information, books that we had received previously
so we would be ready."
In fact, the laboratory had even encountered gram-positive rods
in the recent past. Says Corbit: "One of the technologists remembered
that I had said, ’That’s only one [bottle]. But if it had been more
than one, we have to think anthrax.’ It was in everyone’s mind that
if it was more than one bottle, we should start worrying. Everybody
was aware enough to think, rule this out and let the doctors know
By the Sunday after Lundgren’s admission to the hospital on a
Friday, the bugs from her blood had grown out. "They used extra
plates," Corbit reports. "They looked at the colony types and described
what they saw. It was pretty nondescript. It was a gray, nonhemolytic
little colony. On Monday, it looked like a plate of purple spaghetti.
It was kind of creepy looking. Listeria never looks like
The next obvious test was a wet-prep for motility. The techs "smeared
a little colony on some saline, put a coverslip on the slide, and
just looked at it under a microscope to see if it moved," Corbit
says. "Some [Bacillus] have flagella and can swim, and some
can’t. Anthracis can’t. This was nonmotile."
But Corbit still wasn’t completely convinced. She called a friend
at Connecticut’s state lab and said that the hospital did not have
the ability to do polymerase chain reaction or other ultra-sophisticated
tests. Was there anything else that could nail down the identification?
Her source "suggested a different motility test with semi-solid
agar," Corbit says. "You stab the agar and just incubate it. You
look to see if there is a straight line where you stabbed the agar,
or if it appears cloudy out from the center. If it appeared cloudy
throughout the tube, that would be positive motility. If it stays
where you stabbed it, that’s negative motility. I set that up on
By then, however, events had overtaken Griffin Hospital. Connecticut
state health authorities wanted every plate, every slide. Just about
everything was bundled up and sent by special courier. By the next
day, the news media had begun to descend with satellite trucks and
For their part, Corbit and her colleagues could reflect on the
fact that their standard procedures had worked. "Microbiology is
so specialized that it is not something you can remember if you’re
doing it once every six weeks or three months," she says. "That
is a big reason for keeping microbiologists reading the plates,
looking at the colonies and morphologies."
Corbit continues: "There is way too much involved to be a jack of all trades
and master of none. I can’t do everything. But I acknowledge that. I know microbiology.
I know when to send up the flags and say, ’We’ve got a major thing here, and
I need help.’"
Interestingly, the recent bioterrorism scare had not occasioned
a big shift at Griffin. Earlier anthrax cases during the autumn
had not caused the laboratory to tweak its procedures. "There was
no hysteria. We were doing our job. We would have done the same
thing a year ago," says Stephanie Wain, MD, chairman of pathology
and laboratory medicine.
A busy surgical pathologist, Dr. Wain says the infectious disease
physicians make rounds in the microbiology laboratory and stay on
top of what is unfolding there to a greater degree than she and
Griffin’s other pathologist can. "Infectious disease had a very
important role here," she says. "They treated the patient. They
put the clues together."
Dr. Wain says Connecticut authorities performed more precise tests
to identify Bacillus anthracis. First, she says, the state
lab "did a gas chromatography study to identify the lipids on the
surface of the organism. That exactly matched Bacillus anthracis.
At the same time, they set up a phage study. The anthrax-specific
virus attacks the organism, which results in a hole in the center
of the colony. This test also was positive. Those two test results
were so exact and accurate that they told the governor."
Dr. Wain praises veteran MTs like Hebb. "That weekend, we were
lucky to have our most experienced microbiologists in there," Dr.
Wain says. "You definitely need the expertise in all fields." At
Griffin, she notes, each laboratory supervisor has 20 years of expertise.
She and Griffin’s hospital and lab administrators are not averse
to cross-training as such. Some techs there are cross-trained. Dr.
Wain and her senior staff simply wanted to keep the most experienced
MTs like Hebb in place as specialists, as experts in their own right.
"The administrator a few years ago entertained the idea of using
a commercial lab and getting rid of the lab in the hospital because
we were considered a cost center," Dr. Wain recalls. To change that
thinking, Griffin’s laboratory built up its outpatient volume to
support the optimal staffing. "Eight years ago, we were carved out
of most outpatient lab contracts," says Dr. Wain. "Today, we participate
in all HMO contracts, serve 22 nursing homes and 50 physician offices.
We aggressively marketed the lab among HMOs, doctors, and nursing
Detecting Lundgren’s anthrax was a vindication of that strategy,
Dr. Wain contends. "We kept the microbiology lab in the hospital,"
she says. "That was a prominent lesson learned. Don’t sever that,
as a lot of hospitals are doing with core central labs in off-campus
sites. Have the microbiology technologists and the ID physicians
working together closely."
As a result of the Lundgren case, Dr. Wain reports, there is now
a deeper appreciation of what the laboratory can do within the hospital.
"There is this feeling, mostly from our administration, like ’Wow,
we do have a good lab. Our people really are good.’ And there is
this attitude that we were able to do something in a small community
lab without having to resort to a bigger lab down the street."
As Dr. Wain recounts, even the news media were a little perplexed
about why the cultures had not been sent to the larger academic
hospital, Yale-New Haven Hospital, a short drive away. "The public
and doctors need to understand that laboratories our size can do
99 percent of what larger labs can do with the same expertise and
efficiency," Dr. Wain says.
This line of thought had been conveyed to the medical staff last
fall in two grand rounds on bioterrorism. For herself, Dr. Wain
had read up on the regulations and the latest advisories from the
CDC and OSHA. "We had educated the doctors and our lab that we are
capable of handling these specimens," Dr. Wain says. "We were telling
physicians that we are a biosafety level 2 facility, and we can
take these specimens. People have this perception that the community
lab can’t do anything."
Her hospital can also handle patients. Dr. Wain notes with some
pride that the physicians treating Lundgren did not immediately
begin pumping her full of antibiotics. They waited to see what might
be ailing her. That decision was sound clinical practice, of course,
and it made the detection of the organism easier. "You’d think that’d
be common," Dr. Wain says. "But there are times people get treated
with antibiotics and then they get cultures done." Lundgren eventually
received vancomycin, ceftazidime, ampicillin/ sulbactam, ciprofloxicin,
and clindamycin. None of it worked because B. anthracis was
Dr. Wain says the anthrax case brought to light an important communication
gap, one that all pathologists should be alert to.
"Since the beginning of the outbreak of anthrax in this country,
there had been little communication between the state health department
and our laboratory. Any information about the detection of anthrax
and other bioterrorism information was communicated with the infectious
disease department. I received all my information and education
through the CAP and CDC Web site and other Internet sources," she
says. Even when the health department diagnosed the anthrax case,
her lab wasn’t notified; the health department communicated only
with the infectious disease department. Whether the autopsy was
to be at Griffin Hospital also was not taken up directly with the
Says Dr. Wain: "I found out later that there is a list serve on
the Internet through the health department and that pathologists
in the state are not on it. When the case settled down, I spoke
to the physician in charge of the state health department and told
him of my dismay at the lack of communication with the lab. He agreed
there should be better communication." Dr. Wain then contacted the
president of the Connecticut Society of Pathologists and asked to
have the e-mail addresses of the chairpersons of pathology in Connecticut
sent to the health department.
"Pathologists need to be diligent and alert to these issues. It
is not uncommon for clinicians to bypass pathologists," she says.
Dr. Wain says it is naive for a hospital to presume it will never
see anything unusual simply because of its location or its size.
"We should never say, it can never happen here. It can happen anywhere
if it can happen at Griffin Hospital. We were not thought to be
Nor were they ever in such demand. After Lundgren’s death, Specialty
Laboratories and Mayo Medical Laboratories asked for samples of
the Griffin anthracis organism for research. (Griffin had
held back a small number of plates and gels in case the state of
Connecticut lost something in transit.) But Dr. Wain consulted the
CDC, and she was instructed not to distribute any organisms. Nor,
it turns out, will the CDC.
In the end, it seems, the only change at Griffin was to equipment.
Mulling over their Salmonella and Listeria, their
TB and HIV, and a few other cultures in storage, the laboratory
staff realized their refrigerator needed one small alteration. So
on the Wednesday that Lundgren died, a hospital engineer was summoned
to fix the refrigerator. "We had to get someone up from Environmental
to get a lock and key," Dr. Wain says. "We had a lock, but we never
had a key."
Mark Uehling is a writer in Chicago.