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Leonardtown, MD- On the evening of Wednesday, August 19, 2020, St. Mary’s County resident Laura Kramer took her mother-in-law, who suffers from Alzheimer’s to the emergency room at MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown, MD, where she was informed by hospital staff that she would not be allowed to be inside the building with her mother-in-law.
“[I wasn’t] there to visit, [I was] there to provide care for my mother-in-law, who can’t make medical decisions because she can’t for herself,” Kramer said.
Kramer said emergency room staff instructed her that she would have to wait in her car while her mother-in-law sat in the waiting room, unsupervised — something Kramer felt uncomfortable with.
“If she starts to cry, is someone going to console her and figure out what’s wrong? If she starts to freak out is someone going to take care of her?” Kramer said.
Without being given the chance to prove her caregiver status, Kramer left with her mother-in-law and received treatment at another hospital in Charles County.
Refusing to let go of the experience, the following day a tearful Kramer took to Facebook to tell her story. Since its publication, Kramer’s video has received over 200,000 views and over 1,000 comments, including comments from those who have had similar experiences at St. Mary’s, establishing a pattern.
“We did not apply our COVID-19 visitor policy correctly, and as a result, this patient who required a family member for support was denied that support,” Holly B. Meyer, Director of Marketing, Public Relations and Philanthropy from MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital said in a statement.
The policy, which is available to the public via MedStar’s website states that “patients with disabilities may designate one support person to accompany, visit and stay with them in the hospital. A support person is defined as someone who is legally authorized to make decisions for the individual with disabilities, a family member, a personal care assistant, or a disability service provider.”
“We take this issue seriously and know we need to do better. We have taken steps to re-educate our team on our COVID-19 visitation policies and assure that they are correctly applied going forward,” the statement said.
A representative for the hospital reached out to Kramer and her family to apologize for her experience at the hospital and to find out how to make things right.
“She called to ask me what I would like for retribution, and how we could resolve this matter to not happen again. I was then asked if I wanted to join a task force to help branch between the hospital and the community,” Kramer said.
The Southern Maryland Chronicle made several attempts to contact MedStar St. Mary’s Hospital for further comment, but they declined the offer.
Kramer’s video caught the attention of Melissa Racine, another child of a parent with diminished cognitive function that says she was also denied her rights under the American’s with Disabilities Act during her visit to St. Mary’s.
Back in June, Racine took her mother, who also suffers from Alzheimer’s and other health concerns as a result of her diagnosis, to the emergency room per her mother’s doctor’s instructions.
Racine immediately identified herself as her mother’s legal caregiver and attempted to provide the hospital with the documentation to prove it but was told that she would not be allowed to accompany her mother. Without a working device to communicate with her mother and the doctor from a distance, Racine said she was completely left out of the conversation of her mother’s health.
“I [was] very distraught because I [had] no idea what kind of service they gave my mom. I don’t know what my mom communicated to them,” Racine said.
A patient advocate with the hospital later told Racine that the doctor wanted her mother to tell them what was wrong in her own words, which she wasn’t able to do and didn’t properly record her mother’s medications.
Racine filed a complaint, which she chose not to escalate after being reassured that this would never happen to anyone ever again, according to Racine.
“They’re going to offer some in house training to better equip staff members when it comes to dealing with caregivers and power of attorney paperwork,” Racine said, recalling what the patient advocate said to her.
Communication between Racine and Interim Director of the Emergency Department Katie Peacher in June and July reveal the hospital’s acknowledgment of the problem and thanked her for the “opportunity to improve [their] services and communication.”
However, that wasn’t Racine’s last experience at St. Mary’s.
After undergoing a lengthy process of trying to get the documentation into her mother’s file at the hospital, Racine was once again denied access to her mother, who was brought to the hospital earlier this month for scheduled surgery.
It was during this time that Racine was not allowed at her mother’s side to communicate that her mother was allergic to latex, an ingredient found in aloe, which was applied to her mother’s dry eyes. The resulting allergic reaction was failed to be treated by medical staff, according to Racine.
“When I [watched] Laura’s video, I realized they essentially said the same thing to her that they said to me and I was very upset by that,” Racine said, remembering everything that had happened with the hospital. “It’s like déjà vu and I’m just really disappointed.”
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, hospitals and long-term care facilities have altered their visitor policies to reduce the spread of the virus — but sometimes at the sacrifice of some of the most vulnerable members of their communities.
“As a vulnerable population, often their voices are not heard or they don’t have the power to advocate for themselves,” Emeobong Martin, the regional health systems director for the Alzheimer’s Association for the DMV area said.
That is one of the main reasons that caregivers are an essential part of the health care process for those with cognitive disabilities, according to Martin. In cases of Alzheimer’s and dementia, some people aren’t able to physically articulate their needs, including not being able to speak.
“There could be challenges with knowing what the issues are and being able to appropriately treat them so the need for a caregiver is Paramount,” Martin said.
There are other challenges that are associated with dementia-like acting out when they are confused or in an unfamiliar place. In those types of situations, those who are cognitively impaired may have a tendency to wander and get hurt or may be subject to violent outbursts.
“[They] don’t have a full understanding of what dementia can look like so they don’t appreciate the need for the caregiver,” Martin said of hospitals like St. Mary’s, emphasizing the need to educate hospital workers on the topic.
Those that have concerns or questions about patients and families living with Alzheimer’s and dementia can call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 support line at 800-272-3900 or visit their website for more information.
“Don’t let MedStar’s motto of ‘It’s how we treat people’ be just words, but as a community and society, let’s make them prove this motto by their actions for all,” Kramer said, urging the public to act.