Victim questions safety measures, says career's in doubt
October 3, 2008 4:00 AM
Patricia "Trish" Boyle shows her injured hand.
By David Templeton Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
An 18-pound macaque monkey bit and then mauled the hand of a University of Pittsburgh laboratory technician last week, prompting accusations from the victim and her co-worker that the facility lacks sufficient safety measures.
Patricia "Trish" Boyle, 51, of Avalon, was released from UPMC Presbyterian yesterday -- eight days after the Sept. 24 attack. She received numerous stitches and suffered bone, tendon and nerve damage, the latter of which, she said, could be irreparable.
Blood tests have yet to show what viruses the macaque may have had and whether Ms. Boyle stands vulnerable to infections including hepatitis B. The macaque is used in research on a tuberculosis vaccine, but tuberculosis typically is spread via respiration rather than blood transfer.
"I'm afraid I'll never be able to work in this field again because of my hand," Ms. Boyle said. "I did a lot of microsurgery [in previous jobs] and don't know anything else but this. This is my life."
Pitt spokesman John Fedele, in a voice mail message, acknowledged that a workplace injury had occurred and the university was investigating. He could not be reached for further comment.
Karen Eggert, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said the department investigates all reports of laboratory animals being improperly cared for, with ancillary concern for worker safety. After learning of the attack, a USDA inspector arrived Wednesday to question Ms. Boyle in her hospital room.
Alisha Brown, spokeswoman for the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said it would investigate only if a complaint is filed.
Pitt's $18 million Regional Biocontainment Laboratory is in Biomedical Science Tower 3 on Fifth Avenue in Oakland. The university's Center for Vaccine Research in Pitt's School of Medicine uses primates to develop vaccines with a focus on dengue, influenza, avian flu and tuberculosis.
The tuberculosis vaccine research is funded through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which awarded the center and other research groups a $11.4 million grant earlier this year to develop new strategies to control the disease.
To prevent exposure to dangerous disease, workers caring for animals in the containment area are required to don protective gear, respirators and rubber gloves, among other safeguards.
Ms. Boyle said her job was to feed up to 30 macaques used in the tuberculosis research, clean their cages and check on their health.
Ms. Boyle said she's trained as a laboratory technician, but was assigned to do animal husbandry at the lab.
"I was thrown in there and not taught anything, and told to do this," she said.
The macaques, also known as cynomolgus monkeys, hail from South Asia, weigh up to 30 pounds and feature long tails and limbs.
On Sept. 24, she was alone inside a containment area, using a pole to test whether the macaque's water system was working. But the macaque, called "Grabby" because of his propensity for grabbing anything he can reach, clasped the pole, yanked it inside the cage and then chomped down on Ms. Boyle's right palm below the index and middle fingers.
With its teeth penetrating to the bone, Ms. Boyle could not pull her hand away.
"My hand was in its mouth," she said. "It was clamping down on it and munching on it for up to a minute. I had no choice but to pull my hand out in shreds."
Bleeding profusely, she ran screaming into another containment area where another laboratory technician tried to attend to her injuries. Co-worker Joyce Ann Horner of West Mifflin also arrived to help.
They rinsed her hand, but lacked a bite kit to disinfect the wounds. Ms. Horner and Ms. Boyle also said a supervisor refused to call an ambulance. So Ms. Boyle, with her hand wrapped in a towel and covered with a garbage bag, had to walk uphill to the UPMC Presbyterian's emergency department.
During eight days in the hospital, she underwent three surgeries to treat recurring infections and continues to have no feeling in her index and middle fingers.
Ms. Boyle and Ms. Horner, who was fired the day after the attack for reasons she described as "vague," questioned safety and training procedures used at the lab.
They said a walkie-talkie system known as a Vocera was not working inside the containment area, preventing Ms. Boyle from summoning help. The cages that hold the long-limbed macaques also allow them to grab at workers, sometimes tearing away their respirator hoses. There also was no warning sign on the macaque's cage.
Ms. Horner said she previously was taken to an emergency room when a macaque scratched her hand.
"Bigger and bigger problems are turning out to be a disaster," Ms. Horner said. "For a center like this, they should pay more attention to the details."