Medical Center among handful of facilities with germ-fighting tool

Cleaning crews don’t normally draw a crowd at The Medical Center of Central Georgia. That was before the hospital acquired new space age germ-fighters, though.

The TRU-D Rapid Room Sterilization Unit slightly resembles a taller version of the R2-D2 droid of “Star Wars” fame. It sounds like the robotic voice from the “Lost in Space” television program of the ’60s.

Several people gathered around a glass door to get a glimpse of the machine at work in the Cardio Vascular Intensive Care Unit during a recent demonstration.

“What is that?” one curious onlooker asked as the circle of ultraviolet light tubes set off a blue glow in an empty patient room.

While the unit adjusts its dosage of UV-C rays to the size and contents of the room, it remains stationary and never moves on its own. Technicians roll it around to kill dangerous bacteria and germs in different locations.

A hospital is the place people go to get well, but patients, visitors and employees can pick up deadly strains of microorganisms. Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is difficult to kill with regular antibiotics.

The ultraviolet rays break the DNA of bacteria, viruses and spores to keep them from reproducing, according to information posted on the website for the Lumalier Corporation that manufactures TRU-D.

“The UV-C wavelengths of light are basically a giant, sophisticated bug light,” said Reginald Chambliss, the supervisor of environmental operations at the Medical Center.

Sensors on the machine measure the light that is reflected back to ensure the proper dosage to kill all the germs lingering on surfaces and in the air. A typical room can be disinfected in about an hour. Two of the hospital’s five disinfecting units are dedicated to the operating rooms, and the other three rotate among patient rooms.

Rooms can be used immediately after disinfecting. Because prolonged exposure to UV-C light can damage skin and eyes, no one can be in the room during the process, however.

A technician uses a remote control to operate the machine from outside. The protective case around the fragile tubes comes off in two pieces emblazoned on the inside with warning signs: “Danger -- Do not enter” and “Notice -- Keep this door closed.”

The halves of the cover serve as a barrier at the door to keep people away. A motion detector is set up at the perimeter and triggers an audible warning if someone comes near.

As Chambliss activated the equipment, it sounded its alerts.

“TRU-D system is active,” the computer voice said in its mechanical monotone. “Disinfecting will commence in 15 seconds. Please leave the room.”

At the end of the silent countdown came the final warning: “Disinfecting process starting.”

When someone moved too close, the unit automatically stopped.

“Disinfecting aborted. Sensor tripped,” it said as the lights dimmed.

Because the light saturates the room, there’s no chance it will forget a light switch or miss a door handle. And it never quits early or leaves a job unfinished.

Each machine cost about $175,000. The Medical Center is one of just a handful of facilities using the technology, Chambliss said.

“We do it for all isolation rooms where there has been a diagnosis of a drug-resistant organism,” he said.

Dr. James Cunningham, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said the technology allows them to thoroughly decontaminate the whole room without fear of missing anything -- including airborne particles.

“When combined with appropriate hand hygiene and contact precautions, the TRU-D technology should result in a reduction in hospital-acquired infections,” Cunningham said in a statement.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied MRSA five years ago and determined that 85 percent of invasive staph infections were associated with health care.

Chambliss expects MRSA cases to increase as doctors continue to prescribe antibiotics for a variety of ailments, underscoring the need for the new machines that kill the deadly organisms.

“I don’t know how we did without it,” he said.

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.