Marion County Health Dept: Source of Riley illness still unknown

Published: .
Updated: .

Riley Hospital for Children is once again operating fully, despite a mystery illness that caused a lockdown on Thursday.

Investigators admit they may never know what caused seven people to get sick.

"They locked down all the floors, so nobody could leave the building," explained Kimberly Bunnell, who was inside Riley visiting her cousin Thursday during the lockdown.

"If people got sick, I mean, I think we should know by now what caused it," said Aaron Purdue, whose daughter is a Riley patient.

But 30 hours after it all began, after seven adults got sick from a mystery substance at Riley, there are still no definitive answers.

"At this time, everything we found is inconclusive," said Indianapolis Homeland Security Director Gary Coons at a news conference Friday afternoon.

Health leaders say we likely will never know what noxious substance triggered the hospital lockdown.

"We've used the most sophisticated tests that we have already," said Marion County Health Department director Dr. Virginia Caine. "Usually when you get to this stage, it's very rare that you identify something later."

At the time of the exposure Thursday morning, victims had trouble breathing and felt tingling in their faces after coming in contact with a woman and her purse at the hospital.

"When they opened the purse to get identification, there was a flower aroma, a flowerish aroma came out," Coons explained.

Riley says its hospital did everything right to respond: a major lockdown and extensive testing by Hazmat, the Health Department, even experts at the National Guard. They ruled out benzene and any gases associated with bio-terrorism.

"Our monitors would pick up on any kind of chemical like that," Coons told reporters.

But the monitors didn't pick up anything else either. They found no clues after testing the purse and no clues in samples of the air. Dr. Caine says that's likely because testing didn't occur until three-and-a-half hours after the initial incident.

"And if this is a noxious gas in the air, it's quite possible it could dissipate," she said.

The good news, victims reported no additional symptoms hours after the exposure and no one else has gotten sick.

"So even though we don't know exactly what it is, we feel very confident that we're okay going forward," said Riley CEO Dr. Jeff Sperring.

Still, not knowing is tough for families of patients.

"I'd like to just know what it was," Purdue said.

"We don't really know what's safe and what's not. It's very frustrating, especially if you have children and grandchildren," said visitor Angie Phelps.

"They (first responders) came in and did an excellent job, but I really do...I would love to know what it was," Bunnell said.

Two people were still being treated at Methodist Hospital Friday, including that initial visitor, the woman with the purse. She was interviewed, but provided no additional information about the potential source of the exposure, according to investigators.

Sperring says the other victim still at Methodist, a Riley staff member, is there being treated for a non-related, pre-existing condition.

Earlier story

The head of Marion County Health Department says we may never know what sickened seven adults at Riley Hospital for Children on Thursday.

Bioterrorism agents and organic hydrocarbons like benzene have been ruled out. But samples of the substance were not tested until over three hours after the incident, and Dr. Virginia Caine told reporters Friday that it was possible that if it was a noxious gas, it may have dissipated by then.

The hospital emergency room was closed for around ten hours Thursday after several adults became light-headed and reported tingling and numbness. Multiple emergency responders including the Department of Homeland Security, Hazmat and the Indianapolis Fire Department investigated the source of the contamination.

Dr. Caine said Friday it was not a chemical spill as previously reported. The substance was traced to a woman's purse. The woman became ill while visiting a patient at the hospital, but hospital employees came down with the same symptoms while treating her. They reported a foul odor coming from her purse.

The hospital called in the Department of Homeland Security when hospital staff began showing symptoms. The Indiana National Guard, Hazmat units, the Marion County Health Department and other emergency crews surrounded the emergency room, which was on lockdown.

Dr. Jeff Sperring, Riley president and CEO, said no pediatric patients ever came down with symptoms. He said the last time symptoms were reported was Thursday at around 4:00 pm.

Sperring praised his staff for their handling of what he called a "rapidly developing and unknown situation," but said he was "disappointed that we've not found a conclusion."

Sperring said the hospital was now "back to normal."

Dr. Caine said there was a "good likelihood" that the substance may never be conclusively identified. The most sophisticated tests had already been run on the samples, she said.

"Usually when you get to this stage it's very rare that you identify something later," said Dr. Caine.

Earlier Friday, Riley issued this statement:

"Riley Hospital for Children is still working with external authorities to identify the source of the unknown substance that was responsible for Thursday's incident in the Emergency Department that caused a small amount of adults to fall ill. Four of the seven affected adults have been treated and released and the remaining three patients are still receiving treatment at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital. There is no evidence of further spread and, at this time, all hospital operations - including those of the Riley at IU Health Emergency Department - remain unaffected."

The Indiana National Guard's Weapons of Mass Destruction Unit was called in to secure the woman's clothing and other items so they could be tested. A spokesperson with the National Guard said they also inspected the woman's car and found nothing. Homeland Security says they can't ask the woman any questions because she herself is in critical condition at Methodist Hospital.

Employees said some people complained of funny tastes in their mouth and tingling lips. These same workers told Eyewitness News they received emails from their managers asking them to watch for symptoms of dizziness, tingling lips and odd tastes in their mouths after they left the hospital.