‘Germ-zapping robot’ cleans Donegal family’s home of persistent superbug

By   | ThursdaySept. 28, 2017, 5:24 p.m.

When vacuuming and scrubbing with cartons and cartons of bleach wipes didn’t work, Robin Niderstros brought in a robot.

Her mother, Darleen, had been in the hospital and a step-down facility where she picked up an infection of clostridium difficile, also known as C.diff, which causes diarrhea, cramping and fever, particularly in people who have had other infections treated with antibiotics.

But C.diff came with tough-to-kill spores that can linger a long time and spread easily, so even after 85-year-old Darleen recovered from her initial infection, she caught it twice more while trying to recover at her daughter’s Donegal Township log cabin, despite Niderstros’ efforts to clean every surface of the house.

“I bet I’ve gone through $300 in Clorox,” said Niderstros, 58. “I’ve used more bleach than I ever have in my life. I’ve washed so many times, my hands are burning.”

Her husband was contracting on a job at a hospital where he saw robots being used to disinfect patient rooms, surgical suites and other areas with powerful bursts of ultraviolet light, so Niderstros and a friend did some sleuthing to find San Antonio-based Xenex. On Thursday, the company brought one of its “Lightstrike” robots to do a room-by-room cleaning so Darleen could return again safely once she recovers from her latest bout with the bug.

Looking like a cross between R2-D2 and a hotel maid’s cart, the robot extends a mast from its top that flashes a xenon ultraviolet-C bulb 67 times a second. Many times stronger than sunlight, the UV light it puts out breaks down the stubborn spores’ outer shell and scrambles the DNA inside, rendering the superbug powerless to spread, said Melinda Hart, company spokeswoman. Toward the end of its cycle, the mast and light slowly retract, with reflectors on the inside of its domed “head” spreading light across the room.

Bleach requires 10 minutes to penetrate and kill a C.diff spore; the UV light pulses can do it in five, Hart said. Hospitals typically will run it for five minutes in a patient bathroom and five minutes on either side of a patient bed to zap germs in every corner of the room.

“These are $125,000 each, but preventing just a couple of infections pays for the cost of a robot,” she said.

Ultraviolet light put out by the robot isn’t harmful to humans but can damage one’s eyes if watched directly.

The robots already are in use in 22 Pennsylvania hospitals, including UPMC Passavant in McCandless , Allegheny General Hospital and the Sharon Regional Health System. The company occasionally will take them into homes, day care facilities and school locker rooms as a marketing and awareness tool.

Hart said studies were starting to show hospital-acquired infections were on the decline in facilities that used UV disinfection. Such infections can be deadly in already-vulnerable patients and expensive for hospitals to treat and litigate.

Niderstros was just happy that her mother could return to a truly “clean” house.

“My mother’s battled through a lot. I hope I got some of that toughness,” she said.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724 836 6660 or msantoni@tribweb.com. or via Twitter @msantoni.


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