St. Joseph’s Hospital: Report of a Minor Fire (Part I)

            On Monday, July 8, Jackie Robinson reported on WSTM’s eleven o’clock news that there had been a minor fire on the inpatient psychiatric unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital, caused by a patient with a cigarette lighter.

            On Tuesday, July 9, Nancy Buczek reported in the Post-Standard that a senior vice president said that most of the patients were able to return to their rooms the same day and the rest would be back in their rooms by Wednesday.

            In fact, the fire was caused by the negligence of the staff.  A thirty-bed hospital unit was reduced to twelve beds; two weeks after the fire, eight beds continue to be out of service.  Consequently, dozens of patients—sick, suicidal or psychotic—are not able to receive local acute care.  St. Joseph’s has lost more than $100,000 in billable income, continues to lose about $6000 a day, and still has pending repair expenses.


  • A woman—her first name sounds like “Melonie”—was admitted to the psychiatric unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

Either nurses or mental health counselors do admissions.  Standard procedure requires the admitting staff member to search the patient and the patient’s belongings, and remove all contraband.  Contraband is anything the patient could use to cut, hang, smother, burn or poison a person.  According to the interpretation of the staff member, this can include razors, scissors, belts, pajama ties, pantyhose, radios with headsets, plastic bags, pierced earrings, spiral-bound notebooks, paperclips, perfume, aftershave lotion, soda cans, nail clippers, flower vases, makeup bottles and mirrors.  It most certainly includes matches and cigarette lighters.

Melonie says she brought the cigarette lighter in with her; no staff member took it away.

            Standard procedure on Unit 3-6 (third floor-sixth unit) also has been that at nine o’clock each night, two counselors put on latex gloves and search every room for contraband.  “You’d be surprised at the stuff we pick up,” says one counselor.  They pick up a lot of cigarette lighters.  These searches, which are called “room checks,” are standard procedure but are no longer being done.  There has been no change in policy—it is that management is no longer enforcing the existing policy.

            In the past year, half of the top management has left the psychiatric unit.  This includes the medical director, unit manager, all three clinical coordinators, the psychologist and the senior social worker.  They all continue employment elsewhere; none have retired.  People with less than a year’s experience have replaced people with twenty years’ experience.  The current clinical coordinator for nursing has only been out of nursing school two years.

            All the male nurses and top staffers have quit, leaving the unit without balance.  Many of the experienced nurses and counselors also have gone.  The counselors are now running the unit.  “Mental Health Counselor” is the entry-level position on 3-6.  Counselors are usually female, Caucasian, under thirty, single, and recent college graduates; some still live at home.  They have never committed to a spouse, birthed a baby, bought a house, or buried a parent.

            These young people have virtually unchallengeable and unmonitored control over people who have raised families, been employed for decades, lived for half a century, fought in wars, and are currently suffering from acute mental disorders—often brought on by life experiences their counselors haven’t reached.  For forty hours a week, a counselor has almost complete control over the lives of five or six people.  This control consists mostly of denial, i.e., denying access to food, toilet facilities, telephones, and other staff members.  Denial is on the whim of a counselor who has been given power without having maturity or experience.  One counselor refused to let a patient cut up her credit cards.

            One counselor reports being told in her job interview that Mental Health Counselor is “a burnout position”—plan to be gone, you will not last.  The patient population at St. Joseph’s is no different from the patient population at Upstate or Community General; at the other hospitals it is not a burnout position.  The floor staffs at those hospitals have stability and longevity.  Burnout is not about the job; it is about how the job is managed—and the quality of the managers.

St. Joseph’s Hospital directly employs three inpatient psychiatrists:  

  1. Roger Levine, who sent a patient out on pass:  within hours, she had committed suicide by jumping to her death at Carousel Mall. 
  2. Jane Kou, who sent a patient out on pass:  within hours, she had attempted suicide and only survived after nearly a month on life-support. 
  3. Sabine Meyer, who discharged a patient:  within hours, she had committed suicide by jumping to her death at Carousel Mall.

Staff members on 3-6 say that the pay is mediocre; the benefits are poor, and the pension virtually nonexistent.  While St. Joseph’s has built its cardiac program to be ranked first in the state, it has let its psychiatric program slide into the trash.  (To be continued)

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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