HOSPITAL IN JEOPARDY: Former patient at Sonora Behavioral Health speaks out about conditions inside troubled facility
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in September 2018.
TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - KOLD Investigates has told you about the many citations Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital in Tucson received from the Arizona Department of Health Services.
For the first time, we're hearing from a former patient who lived it.
We're also learning about a new violation.
When we first reported on Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital in May, we uncovered more than 80 violations including the most severe kind -- immediate jeopardy. That's when a condition is so bad a patient could be harmed at any moment. We also reported on a patient's suicide and two wrongful death lawsuits.
Now, we spoke exclusively with one former patient who details what she says really happens behind those hospital doors.
"I was like, I'm just going to kill myself to get out of here."
A woman we'll call "Erika" says she checked in to Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital when she was 16. She was depressed and thought about suicide. Now, five years later, she works in the behavioral health field and has a better understanding of what proper care looks like. She says she should've felt like a patient -- not a prisoner.
"I really felt like I'd done something wrong and I think that the way that some of the staff treated other patients who kind of caused more trouble than I did," Erika said. "It wasn't anything abusive, but it was definitely kind of like an inmate-guard type relationship."
She hoped to speak with a counselor about her feelings but said that meeting didn't happen until she was being discharged.
"I almost felt more depressed when I was there. The conditions of being left alone and stuff like that," she said.
She says she saw many violations similar to what we uncovered from the Arizona Department of Health Services during the last three years like problems with record keeping.
"I had something that I was planning on doing as an attempt and then in my records it ended up saying that I actually took the action to do it. So, it's a really different story than just thinking about something and then actually putting that into motion."
She says she saw workers not giving medication properly. According to the state health department, they are supposed to make sure a patient actually swallows their pills.
"They didn't check to make sure you hadn't cheeked it which I think is probably something that generally does happen in psych wards but they did, you know, we'd line up and then we'd take our medication in front of the nurse."
She says being properly staffed has also been an issue.
"I remember it being for sure a little short-staffed with how many kids were there because it was staffed similar to the program that I work at now but where I work now isn't a lockdown facility. So, you'd think for a place like that, they'd have a little bit more supervision."
We reached out to Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital again, but have not heard back.
Erika also claims there wasn't much to do at the hospital. We spoke with a Tucson doctor who says that's dangerous for a depressed person. She says it's one of many warning signs you should look out for when seeking care for yourself or a loved one.
"Asking them, 'Hey, what was available for you to do today?' And if they're saying there's nothing to do, check with a nursing staff. Was there something available to do? A group they could've participated in? An activity set up so it's not just you sitting there 24 hours and you meet with your doctor. How long can you possibly meet with the doctor? Like an hour? 24 hours are hard," said Dr. Saira Kalia, Banner UMC.
Kalia says also be aware of this red flag: communication.
"If they're worried about communication from their care provider and they're not getting it or they're saying, 'Hey, I'm having all these side effects,' and you say, 'What did your doctor say?' or, 'What did your provider say?' And they say, 'Well, I'm not sure.' or, if it's not a two-way thing I would worry," she said.
To hopefully avoid these situations, do your homework. Kalia explains how to properly look into a hospital to make sure it meets your standards.
"I would lean toward checking licenses," she said. "Everybody has to be accredited by a joint commission. All this information is online."
And it's not just the hospitals themselves you should be looking into.
"You'll hear horror stories because the place will be licensed but the providers within them will not have adequate licenses," Kalia said.
Once discharged from an inpatient unit, Kalia says the care shouldn't stop. Make sure the continued care meets your standards, as well.
It's a journey Erika knows well. Things have turned around for her, but she knows that's not the case for everyone.
"I'm on medication. I work full time. I'm a full-time grad student. Like I said, I'm sober," she said.
Now she urges all parents to demand better care.
"If they're not communicating with you, raise hell. Your kid deserves that."
Speaking of communication, Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital was just dinged by the state with a deficiency on that very topic.
In June, the Arizona Department of Health Services said a physician did not contact a patient's responsible party when they were supposed to. This means the patient's loved ones may not have had the opportunity to ask important questions about the patient's treatment. This citation, and all of the citations mentioned in this piece, have since been corrected.
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