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Patients complain of lack of hot water


Don’t expect a lot of warmth at the psychiatric unit of the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s these days — particularly in the shower, patients and family members say.

Mark Gruchy

A nice, hot shower can help relax the mind and cure many of the ills that trouble you, but for that you need hot water. At the psychiatric unit, well, hot water is hard to come by.

Related letter:

Conditions at psychiatric unit ‘demeaning’

Amy Huskins couldn’t believe how bad the situation was when her father was admitted there at the end of April. He had been in a terrible car accident in which another person died, and after being treated for physical injuries was placed in the psychiatric unit on the advice of his psychiatrist, who wanted to get him back on medications he’d been on previously.

“He was trying to get a shower, a straightforward and simple thing, you’d think,” Huskins said.

“The nurse said, ‘You are going to have to run the shower for about half an hour before you get any hot water.’

“Even after half an hour we couldn’t get any hot water in the shower, so my mother was able to get lukewarm water from the sink, and my dad was sitting in the shower on a chair and my mother was tossing lukewarm pans of water over his head to get him washed.

“One of the nurses said they’ve been complaining about the problem for months. They said there are times they had to boil the kettle to bring hot water to a patient for them to clean themselves. I couldn’t believe it.”

Linda Walker of Winterton experienced the same thing during her recent stay in the unit. She wrote a letter of complaint to Eastern Health that you can read on page A8 in today’s Telegram.

Walker said there are many things going on at the psychiatric unit that demean patients. In addition to the lack of hot water, she said mice can be seen running around, the physical state of the unit is run down and patients are left “pretty much” on their own to fill the day.

She said there are a number of simple things that can be done to help patients, such as making the kitchen more available, getting a television that works — the only television on the unit, she says, overheats and cuts off after 30 minutes.

“There is a definite lack of helpful groups or even worksheets that help patients work on issues like coping strategies, co-dependency, self-esteem or preventing relapse,” she wrote. “The occupational therapy room is not utilized enough, only open a few hours a day with even the gym equipment sitting there and no one can get to it.”

Dr. Oscar Howell, a vice-president with Eastern Health, said after hearing about the complaints he discussed the hot water issue with the engineers.

“In the Health Sciences Centre, the psychiatric unit is a long way from the hot water supply so that overnight, when there is not a lot of demand or less demand for hot water, and the lines cool down and it takes a while to get hot water there,” he said. “Staff will try to compensate by running water in the morning to get the hot water to patients. It becomes less of a problem as the day goes on, but still a problem, so we have to do something about that and we are going to do something about that, and do it urgently.”

Howell said they have asked a consultant to do up a design to solve the problem that likely will include some kind of hot water recirculator or a type of on-demand hot water tank, or combination of both.

“We’ve asked the consultant to give us that design ASAP,” Howell said. “We are going to bypass the tendering process and do this as an urgent emergent situation, and try to get hot water to those folks as quickly as we can.”

As for the other issues being raised, Howell noted, Eastern Health will try to deal with them as best they can.

“The building has been there awhile,” he noted. “There’s always issues in a building this age that you have to work your way through.”

St. John’s lawyer Mark Gruchy, president of the Canadian Mental Health Association–Newfoundland and Labrador, said the situation is unacceptable and contrary to the provincial government’s own promises regarding mental health.

“It’s not right. A lot of people in that unit are dealing with things like depression, and what a place to be depressed, where you can’t get a shower,” Gruchy said.

“It doesn’t help anything. It doesn’t help the delivery of medical services. It doesn’t help the stigmatization. It isn’t humane. It’s going to keep people from wanting to go there.

“It’s pretty amazing we are at a place where the government fails to deliver upon their 11-year-old promise to give us a modern mental-health facility as a primary facility, as in the new Waterford, and they can’t keep the hot water going in the Health Sciences Centre psych ward. They are aware of it, but nobody has done anything about it, as far as I can understand. Somebody should be down there right now with some kind of solution, temporary or otherwise, to provide hot water to these people.”

Huskins said her father, when he was given passes to leave the unit for a day, did not want to return. She said he felt like he wasn’t being respected as a patient or a person.

“Another issue that we had was there was no access to any counselling. My father was dealing with a lot and I asked the nurse if we could get someone to talk to him, a counsellor or psychiatrist. She said, ‘Talk to him about what?’

“I had to ask, do they know where they are working, what he was in there for? The whole thing was degrading, the whole experience. I think there is a lack of empathy among the staff. There were a couple of the nurses who were nice, but for the most part there was a lack of empathy.”

Gruchy said mental-health facilities should be designed to help improve people’s spirits, not to hinder their progress.

“There are lots of issues, but if the paint is falling off the walls and people can’t access the kitchen with relative ease, and nurses are overworked, and there’s no hot water, all of that is basically a monumental mass of red flags,” he said. “What you are dealing with is a unit that is more or less on life support, that sort of exists in a state of limbo where nobody knows whether to go forward or backward.

“I think a lot of this stuff is probably happening because people have been waiting for a long time for a substantial infrastructure improvement in mental-health facilities, and you wait around for years and you try to make the best with what you’ve got and you are promised things for 11 years and they don’t happen, and people are probably at their wit’s end.”

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