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'A very unusual situation': Cause of illness for Rogersville clinic staff remains unknown

Jeff Bobo • Updated Nov 9, 2017 at 1:19 PM

ROGERSVILLE — HAZMAT testing detected no signs of toxic substances, and the Rural Health Consortium clinic which was evacuated Wednesday when staffers fell ill after smelling a chemical odor reopened Thursday morning.

On Wednesday afternoon, a 52-year-old male patient emanating a chemical odor came for a scheduled appointment at the clinic located at 4307 Highway 66-S. 

Upon coming into contact with that patient, a nurse practitioner and nurse became ill.

Eventually three clinic employees were taken by ambulance to the Hawkins County Memorial Hospital emergency room, six others went to the ER on their own, and the facility was evacuated.

All nine clinic employees were decontaminated at the hospital, treated and released. Of the nine, only the nurse practitioner and nurse who were in closest contact with the patient did not return to work Thursday.

Rogersville Police Department Assistant Chief Travis Fields told the Times-News Thursday that the Kingsport Fire Department and HAZMAT tested the clinic as well as employees and the male patient with equipment that detects dangerous toxins, but they were unable to detect anything harmful.

The patient told police he had been stripping his floor earlier that day with a combination of bleach and other cleaners.

“Nothing tested positive,” Fields said. “They (Kingsport) have a really extensive machine that can test for any toxins, traces from a meth lab, explosive materials, dangerous chemicals and things like that. Everyone’s toxin screen came back negative, and to our knowledge everyone is OK. All we’re left with is the assumption that it was the chemical smell from the bleach and cleaner he was using earlier in the day that created this situation. Unless something else comes up, that’s pretty much what we’re stuck with.”

Following HAZMAT testing, Rural Health Consortium CEO Linda Buck got the “all clear” to re-enter the clinic around 9 p.m. Wednesday. Police Chief Doug Nelson told her that whatever came into the clinic with the male patient and caused the illness apparently walked out of the clinic with the male patient, and there was no reason the facility’s employees couldn’t begin seeing patients again Thursday morning.

Police searched the man’s home and person, and nothing dangerous or illegal was discovered.

Buck said a nurse and nurse practitioner were in an 8-by-10 exam room with the patient for an extended period of time, much longer than the average visit, and those were the two people who exhibited the most severe symptoms.

“The symptoms seemed to be heart racing, palpitations, respiratory, and headache,” Buck said. “They did smell an odor, and I’m told now by the (nurse practitioner) that she did discuss the odor with the patient. The patient basically acted as if he didn’t know what she was talking about, and he didn’t show those symptoms.”

Buck added, “We evacuated the whole building by 4 p.m., and when Kingsport’s HAZMAT came in they found nothing. It’s a very unusual situation, but we reacted to it in a very quick manner and followed our policies and procedures, and it worked perfectly. I would like to know what it was, but I was told by HAZMAT they found absolutely nothing. We had our patients and our staff’s safety at the forefront when we evacuated, and I would not have opened today if there had been any question in my mind that it had something to do with our facility. It did not.”

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