Originally created 01/09/98

S.C. hospitals bursting at the seams



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina hospitals are bursting at the seams trying to accommodate people suffering from the usual winter ailments like colds, flu and respiratory infections.

Several hospitals across the state are in the midst of an especially busy winter and have been forced to find creative ways to avoid turning away patients.

Self Memorial Hospital in Greenwood and Tuomey Regional Medical Center in Sumter have reported putting people where they do not necessarily belong, such as adults on the pediatric floor or men in the maternity ward.

Brenda Peyton-Zilch, Tuomey's spokeswoman, said the 266-bed hospital has been full for weeks. She said while the numbers tend to go up at this time of year, this year has been especially busy.

"Colds, flus go untreated too long, and they wind up in the hospital," she said.

At Self Memorial, which has 250 beds, doctors have seen a lot of respiratory infections or people who put off elective surgery until after the holidays, spokesman Dan Branyon said.

"We're scrounging around trying to find the beds and the staff to take care of people," he said. "Unless it's urgent, I wouldn't encourage anybody to check themselves into the hospital."

Cheryl Smith of Rock Hill learned that the hard way. She was chopping onions Sunday night when the knife slipped and cut her hand. She hurried to the emergency room at Piedmont Medical Center and was told to wait for her hand to be stitched up.

Four hours later, she was told to leave; the hospital was full.

"We are very full," said Bill Henning, vice president of development. But he said the hospital is not turning people away, though patients with less serious injuries may have to wait.

"Our emergency room's not going to turn away anybody," Henning said Monday.

But Smith told The Herald of Rock Hill that about 15 people at Piedmont were told to leave at 11:15 p.m. Sunday.

Smith drove herself to a nearby clinic, but it was closed and she went home.

Some of the other patients drove to Mercy Hospital South in Pineville, N.C., saying Piedmont directed them there, said Scott White, a spokesman for the parent company, Carolinas HealthCare System.

Richland Memorial in Columbia, with 540 beds, began Wednesday with 499 patients and 112 more people scheduled to be admitted that day.

"We went into this morning knowing we were going to be a number of patients overbooked," spokeswoman Judy Cotchett Smith said. She said patients are shifted and released as soon as possible to accommodate the overflow.

Smith also said the hospital has been in a constant hiring mode, even recruiting nurses from outside South Carolina. The hospital also hires temporary and part-time staff from nursing agencies, she said. Staffers also work a lot of overtime.

"Instead of having a nice break around the holidays, we didn't have that," Smith said.

Richland Memorial treated 112 more patients on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day combined than on those two days last year, she said.

The Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, with nearly 600 beds, seems to have been less affected by the winter crunch.

"January is a busy month historically, but we're not in the situation of turning folks away," hospital controller Lisa Montgomery said.

She said staff members are working many extra hours to treat people. She also recommended people who need to schedule nonemergency procedures wait a few weeks.