LAST MINUTE MUSINGS: Unsure about visiting the hospital? Consider the alternatives

Monday, May 4, 2020
Putnam County Hospital radiology tech Bob Webster cleans an MRI machine at the hospital last week. With concerns over COVID-19, such equipment is undergoing extra cleaning — before and after each use.

I’ll admit it: When I got a call early last week requesting my presence at Putnam County Hospital on Wednesday, I had mixed feelings about it.

Why would any sane person walk into a hospital when there’s still you-know-what to worry about?

But common sense got the better of me.

Would Putnam County Hospital be setting a trap for me?


Is the hospital a death zone right now?

Not according to any data I’ve seen.

Is there a risk of COVID-19 infection in going to the hospital?

Sure. But there have been risks every morning since mid-March that I’ve still ventured to the office … risks when I’ve chosen to go get groceries or medicine … risks even when I’ve driven through or otherwise picked up food from area restaurants.

And let’s be honest — a place staffed by medical professionals and already obsessed with cleanliness is probably better equipped to cope with COVID-19 than these places.

Besides, sometimes the benefits outweigh the risks.

“We are really worried that people are staying away out of fear,” Dr. Keith Landry told me later. “Fear shouldn’t keep people away from this place. We want people to feel confident.”

But more on my discussion with Dr. Landry and others later.

With some apprehension, I took the call Tuesday afternoon from PCH scheduling, telling me to arrive by 8:45 a.m. Wednesday. However, the procedure for entering the hospital has changed, I was advised.

Rather than simply parking and walking in, traffic is diverted to a tent in front of the PCH office building, where screeners — outfitted in masks, gowns and gloves — ask you questions about your current health.

Once they either find out you are on the list or that you indeed need care, you are told to park.

Additionally, there is help available. If you don’t have a mask, you are issued one. If someone needs to help you to the building, they will.

In my case, I was met in front of the main hospital entrance by Klair Wiram, a radiology tech currently working as a runner.

Besides a patient’s temperature being taken at the front desk, there is no further wait. Patients come in pre-registered and are taken almost immediately to the location of service.

“We try to keep the timeframe down as much as possible,” Wiram explained.

She wasn’t kidding. Between the ongoing prohibition of visitors at PCH and the lack of wait times, as we made our way back to radiology, the waiting room was populated only by a lone masked man. (No, not that one.)

As we walked, Wiram explained how scheduling has changed in the radiology department since March, with appointments spaced out, scheduled so there isn’t overlap. This limits the likelihood of contact with other patients and allows plenty of time for extra cleaning.

She also pointed out the wealth of hand sanitizer stations on the walls, as well as the spaced out chairs in the hallway, should there be any wait at all.

As it happened, I had a very short wait in one of these for radiology tech Bob Webster, who explained that now was the time to get changed into scrubs and leave any valuables in a locked room.

We then proceeded into the MRI room, where Webster demonstrated the extensive cleaning the machines go through for each use.

“Everything before you get here is cleaned and then after you leave, it’s cleaned again,” Webster said, explaining that, while a premium has always been placed on sterilizing the equipment, it’s been even more strongly emphasized with fears over COVID-19.

“I will clean it all in front of the patient so they know it’s clean,” Webster said. “And then again once it’s over.”

Even in cases when a patient can listen to music during the procedure, there are covers for the headphones for an added bit of protection.

Webster also explained that there was a time when gloves were only necessary if he had to start an IV or something similar. Now they’re wearing gloves and masks for every patient.

“Now we’re wearing gloves with every patient and washing hands after pretty much any contact,” Webster said.

At this point in my visit — when a regular patient would have been taking his place in the MRI machine — our charade came to an end.

I was not at Putnam County Hospital on Wednesday as a patient, but as a reporter learning more about what it’s like to be a patient in the era of COVID-19.

The answer? It’s safe. The hospital is taking any extra precautions it can to ensure this.

Webster explained that volume has been down since March, but the radiology department has never closed.

He added that the patients he has seen haven’t been all that nervous about the risk of infection.

“They’re coming to get stuff done,” Webster said. “They’re seeing what we’re doing to take care of things. We’re taking precautions.”

Radiology Manager Paul Sanders had similar thoughts.

“We are open, being safe and happy to serve,” Sanders said. “Any type of testing you need, we’re happy to do that.”

Of course, the precautions are different, with screening for “symptomatic” patients on everyone’s mind these days.

“Of course, patients coming to this department are always symptomatic of something, so we kind of have to pick through that,” Sanders said.

He added that while cleaning equipment has always been important, there is a greater premium on it now.

“We clean all of that very diligently,” Sanders said. “That’s normal practice, of course, but right now it’s a super focus.”

“We haven’t been closed through all of this, it’s just been kind of abbreviated,” Sanders added.

Sanders gave a lot of credit for the ongoing ability to safely serve patients to Dr. Landry and Vickie Trusler, PCH infection preventionist.

“I think we’re going over and above what the CDC is saying in all this,” Sanders said.

In fact, what’s coming from the CDC, the Indiana State Department of Health and data from PCH and throughout the county, is reviewed each morning by a steering committee.

The committee tracks the various data points, “so that we can make sure we’re able to respond to where we are as a community,” Putnam County Hospital CEO Dennis Weatherford said. “We make sure we’re keeping up with what’s happening in the community.”

Being aware of these data points, and confident that hospital leadership will respond appropriately should something change, Landry said he remains most worried in the long term about traditional threats like heart disease and cancer.

“Heart disease and cancer still are, by far, the No. 1 killers,” Landry said. “The more we can prevent people from ending up with cancer and heart disease, the better.”

Hospital CEO Dennis Weatherford agrees.

“People are putting off care that, both short term and long term, is going to have bad effects,” Weatherford said. “If you need care, come in. We’re taking every precaution we possibly can.”

Weatherford told the story, relayed to him by a provider, of a patient who recently came to Putnam Prompt Care for an ailment that had been plaguing her for several days..

Once she had been treated, she told the provider, “If I had known the precautions you were taking, I would have come in two days ago.”

It’s those two days — or more — that worry Weatherford, Landry and others.

“Our prompt care is open. Our clinics are reopening. We are doing telehealth visits,” Landry said “There is access to our procedures.”

He added that diabetes care remains important, cancer screenings should still be scheduled, vaccinations and mammograms still need to take place.

With spring weather finally arriving, people will be outside more and that carries with it the risk of breaks, sprains, poison ivy, stings and other urgent, if not life-threatening, needs.

“Prompt Care is open for that. Access is still there.”

PCH practices are also getting back to something resembling normal, with some notable changes.

Screenings are now being performed remotely when possible. Visitors are not accompanying those who must come to the office. Automobiles are used as waiting rooms, with the patient — in a mask — transported straight to the evaluation room.

“We feel very safe in caring for people in this manner,” Landry said. “We have to go back to seeing people even knowing this virus is going to be around for several more weeks. We need to start seeing people.”

More information on Putnam County Hospital services reopening is available here.

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