Clean Hospital Environments – And Clean Bicycles – Protect Vulnerable Cancer Patients


When treatment for leukemia killed most of John Maack’s white blood cells, he relied on the staff at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) to protect him against infection.

Susan Childress, HCI’s director of nursing, says many of the patients she sees are vulnerable to infection because of low white blood cell counts. In John’s case, aggressive chemotherapy destroyed his bone marrow so new, cancer-free stem cells could be introduced.

While John and his doctors waited for the new stem cells to grow, his defenses against disease were especially low. Since hospital equipment such as catheters, ventilators, and central IV lines can be a source of infection, HCI has developed cleaning procedures to keep patients safe during these critical periods.

HCI trains the cleaning staff to completely sterilize environments for patients with weakened immune systems. Their vigilance has achieved an infection rate below the national average. Still, the team is working to realize what many say is impossible—a zero percent rate of infection.

Toward this end, the staff at HCI regularly evaluates new cleaning products, uses special air filters, and cleans all surfaces twice daily. John says he felt “confidence that the staff was doing what they needed to do so I didn't contract something. I could literally set my clock by the time the cleaning people would come into my room each day – they really take it seriously.”

This is all standard operating procedure, but John presented a special challenge. Incredibly active before his diagnosis, John was determined to maintain his lifestyle throughout his treatment. He walked seven to eight miles a day around the hospital floor during week-long visits to HCI for chemotherapy. When it came time for stem cell therapy and a 15-day hospital stay, John took additional measures to stay active.

He brought in his own exercise bike, which the HCI staff took apart and sterilized to make it safe for him to use. Staff also gave John access to the gym at HCI’s Linda B. and Robert B. Wiggins Wellness and Integrative Health Center. They sterilized equipment and allowed him to exercise alone to avoid infection from other gym-goers. John says, “The staff going the extra mile was a huge benefit for me as I went through my treatment.”

The day John started stem cell therapy, he took his friends to the starting line of the Wasatch 100; a 100-mile endurance race he ran every year. Instead of racing that day, he checked into HCI. A year later, John ran, and finished, the Wasatch 100 as a cancer survivor: slightly weakened, but resilient and determined to keep moving forward.

Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) is a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, which means it meets the highest standards for cancer research and receives support for its scientific endeavors. HCI is located on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and is a part of the University of Utah Health Care system. HCI treats patients with all forms of cancer and operates several high-risk clinics that focus on melanoma and breast, colon, and pancreas cancers, among others. HCI also provides academic and clinical training for future physicians and researchers. For more information about HCI, please visit