After Mystery Odor Forced Closures, Vt. Hospital's Operating Rooms to Reopen

The smell, described alternately as being reminiscent of burgers or engine fuel, forced surgeries at UVMMC's Fanny Allen campus in Colchester to be rescheduled

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A Vermont hospital is preparing to reopen surgical facilities that had to temporarily close after a mysterious smell left some employees reporting they felt ill.

"I think we're all ready to get back to our familiar routine," said Gwen Eckley, an operating room nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center's Fanny Allen campus in Colchester.

Eckley became a patient herself when that strange scent wafted in twice — in October and November of 2019.

Some people thought it smelled like car exhaust. Others described it as a bacon burger mixed with small engine fuel.

In all, seven hospital employees were evaluated for headaches, nausea or a fuzzy-headed feeling, UVMMC said.

"I had a little shortness of breath and heart palpitations," Eckley recalled in an interview Wednesday with NECN, noting that all her symptoms went away in the days following the experience.

After the incidents, UVMMC had to scramble to reschedule surgeries, plugging patients into other locations in the UVM Health Network.

The Fanny Allen operating rooms host a wide range of procedures, the hospital said, including dental surgeries, hand surgeries and procedures to address sports injuries.

Dawn LeBaron and other leaders of the University of Vermont Medical Center never did get a clear answer about what the mystery odor was that forced the temporary closure of operating rooms around Thanksgiving.

But after a lot of work, about two months later, the first affected room is close to reopening.

"We feel comfortable we're continuing to take great care of our patients," LeBaron said.

LeBaron, the vice president for hospital services, pointed to several improvements she said are aimed at ensuring safety in the Fanny Allen surgical center.

Those include a sensitive carbon monoxide monitor, new air sampling canisters, filters on the building's air intake and upgrades to its kitchen exhaust units.

Air tests are also underway, with outside experts confirming the surgery space is safe for use, LeBaron said.

If the unknown stench happens to somehow return, a new response policy is in place to move people out of affected areas.

"I'm just excited to get back," said Eckley, who had to work in other operating facilities during the temporary shutdown. "I hope everything runs smoothly and we don't run into any problems at all."

The operating room area still needs a deep clean before surgeries at Fanny Allen can restart next week, LeBaron noted.

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