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Cuts at Deaconess bring changes for youngest patients

Dr. Frank Reynolds comforts 6-year-old cancer patient Danielle Perkins, at Sacred Heart Children's Hospital on Monday. Reynolds moved to Sacred Heart after Deaconess Medical Center closed several of its popular pediatric units. 
 (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Dr. Frank Reynolds comforts 6-year-old cancer patient Danielle Perkins, at Sacred Heart Children's Hospital on Monday. Reynolds moved to Sacred Heart after Deaconess Medical Center closed several of its popular pediatric units. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

During the 13 years Heidi Penkert has been sending her daughter to Deaconess Medical Center for treatment, the Grangeville, Idaho, mom felt comfortable knowing her child was home away from home.

Cara Penkert, 19, could e-mail her friends from a computer lab in the cystic fibrosis unit during her three-week treatments for that disease. One year, the Penkerts even cooked Thanksgiving dinner in a family kitchen there.

But Cara Penkert’s most recent stay was void of the comforts she’d come to expect, her mom said. Empire Health Services, which operates Deaconess, closed several of the hospital’s children’s care services last month. The cuts, which eliminated 56 jobs, were part of a larger movement to improve the hospital’s finances and streamline its operations. Deaconess still treats cystic fibrosis, but Penkert was cared for by new nurses, wasn’t seen by the child-life specialists who lost their jobs in the change, and was moved to a part of the hospital that lacked the comforts that made a stay at Deaconess feel more like a stay with extended family, Heidi Penkert said.

“These kids with cystic fibrosis, it’s a fatal illness,” she said. “They need support in place.”

Empire’s interim CEO, Jeff Nelson, said eliminating the programs – pediatric intensive care, pediatric oncology and pediatric surgery – was a necessary move for the financial health of the medical center. The programs were absorbed by Sacred Heart Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital, making the situation a “win-win” for the patients and health-care providers, he said.

“We find that this collaboration makes a great deal of sense for the community, and it makes a great deal of economic sense with us, too,” Nelson said Friday.

What doesn’t make sense to Dr. Frank Reynolds is how abruptly the change occurred. Reynolds, who founded Deaconess’ children’s cancer program in 1972, moved his practice to Children’s Hospital last month.

“Our focus has always been on taking care of our patients,” he said. “Suddenly, on the 12th (of January), we’re told we don’t have a house to take care of them in in 48 hours.”

Reynolds said the hospital didn’t notify families, and the closures happened so quickly his office didn’t get its scheduling program running before patients started showing up at Children’s Hospital for appointments – after first going to Deaconess and being greeted by a shuttered office.

“Some of them don’t know we’re here yet,” he said.

For his part, Nelson said several doctors had actually suggested consolidating Deaconess’ pediatrics services with Sacred Heart’s, and that Reynolds was privy to the discussions. Reynolds denies he knew, though, saying the first time he met Nelson was the day he was told his department would be eliminated.

Empire is struggling with an increasingly common problem among hospitals: More and more patients can’t pay their bills. For that and other reasons, the nonprofit organization has lost millions of dollars during the last few years and has cut programs, trimmed wages and laid off hundreds of employees in response.

The organization hired Nelson in October to lead a turnaround at Deaconess and Valley Hospital and Medical Center, which it also owns. During his one-year term, Nelson’s task is to implement a new business directive to mend the financially troubled organization.

Nelson declined to say how much the pediatric programs that were cut were bringing in – or losing – for the hospital.

“It is tragic, whenever you do those changes, that people’s lives from a standpoint of employment are affected,” he said. But, “we have not lost the (pediatric) services in the community.”

Nelson said the creature comforts, like those Cara Penkert enjoyed, will come back to Deaconess as soon as the dust settles from the change. And some of the employees who lost their pediatric jobs have been rehired in the hospital’s other programs, although he said he didn’t know exactly how many.

When asked whether the community should expect other program cuts in the future, Nelson replied, “You should be looking for more changes, more improvements as we continue to grow the company.”

Reynolds, meanwhile, is adjusting to a new home. Children’s Hospital has been very welcoming, he said, but its atmosphere is more formal. At Deaconess he wore baseball caps and cracked jokes – anything to brighten the life of a young person battling cancer. His patients, who look at him like nieces and nephews look at a beloved uncle, ask him why he wears dress shirts and ties now.

“My patients keep saying, ‘What’s going on? You going to court? You going to a funeral?’ ” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said he has fond memories of his years at Deaconess.

“Our ties with Deaconess as an institution are kaput,” he said. “Our friendships with our old Deaconess friends are forever.”

Mead resident Jon Christeson calls Empire’s handling of the situation “wrong.”

“They’ve got a CEO in there who is just shutting everything down for the bottom line,” he said.

Christeson came to Reynolds’ office three years ago with his son Jacob, now 6, to examine a growth the size of a thumb coming out of the boy’s ear. Other doctors thought the growth was just harmless tissue, but Reynolds and another physician diagnosed it as cancer.

“That was the hardest thing in the world, seeing your son go through that,” Christeson said, choking back tears. “When we first met (Reynolds), he could see it in our faces that we were scared. He grabbed my wife by the hand and said, ‘We are going to cure your son, and he’s going to go home with you.’ It’s not like he knew, but he knew that’s what we needed to hear.”

Jacob’s cancer has been in remission for two years now.

Christeson credits Reynolds for saving his son’s life, as well as the lives of hundreds of other patients, and can’t understand how the hospital could cut a program that a doctor like Reynolds had fostered for so long.

The day before the move to Children’s Hospital, Christeson stood outside the hospital holding a sign for three hours that read “Thanks, Dr. Reynolds. You’re the best” and “Thanks Peds Oncology. You will be missed.”

Reynolds said he felt as if he was drowning that day. Seeing the sign was like a hand pulling him from the water.