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Providing hope to a community—of inmates

Providing hope to a community—of inmates

Published on November 20, 2017

One day in the Tillamook County Jail in Oregon, an inmate was having a seizure in his bunk bed. His cellmates pulled him from the bed and began performing CPR. The jail’s medical team rushed to the cell and resuscitated him before the ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital.

If the medical staff hadn’t been there to help this inmate, he would have died.

When we think of healthcare, we might think of services performed in hospitals, clinics and medical offices. But do we ever consider how medical care is performed in jails?

Adventist Health’s Long Prairie Clinic in Tillamook County, Oregon, answers this question.

Just a couple of years ago, the Tillamook County Jail had two nurses working nine-to-five shifts five days per week. If an inmate required care outside of the jail, a deputy had to accompany him, costing the jail extra manpower and funding. To maintain its accreditation in the state of Oregon, the jail must keep a specific number of medical staff. To lose staff would be financially devastating—the jail would have to send inmates to other counties for medical care and pay the cost.

The Tillamook County Jail is small—with a 96-bed capacity, it serves the county’s population of about 25,000. Tillamook is a tight-knit community, known for its agriculture (Tillamook Cheese, anyone?), forestry and beautiful coast. And according to Eric Swanson, executive director for strategy and development at Adventist Health’s Tillamook Regional Medical Center, one thing that makes this county so unique is the way everyone helps each other.

At 11 p.m. on a Thursday night in 2015, Eric received a text message from the jail commander at the Tillamook County Jail that read: Call me first thing in the morning.

 “We’ve lost our last nurse,” the jail commander said when Eric called him the next morning.

Eric understood the full weight of this sentence. In addition to his role at Tillamook Regional Medical Center, he is also a paramedic and a reserve deputy with the sheriff’s office—a role he has held for 29 years. He knew that the jail needed medical staff to maintain their accreditation, so he turned to Gina Seufert, vice president of physician and clinic services at Tillamook Regional Medical Center, to come up with an official game plan.

“Gina and I were on the same page right away,” he says. “The sheriff’s office is an important community partner to us—and it was the right thing to do.” After getting the thumbs-up from Tillamook Regional’s president, David Butler, Eric began performing medical care in the jail the same day, and then created a plan for Tillamook Regional Medical Center to be the official “clinic” in the jail. Gina recruited a team of “superstar” paramedics and a full-time nurse to join the efforts.

Why is it so important to provide medical care to inmates?

It’s simple.

The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution states that no “cruel and unusual punishment” be inflicted upon anyone; There are legal and ethical rights to healthcare that we should uphold always, no matter the situation. Eric says that many of the Tillamook County inmates suffer from mental illness and uncontrolled conditions such as diabetes. Even though these inmates have ended up in jail, they are still humans, like us, and they deserve to be treated as such.

The Long Prairie Clinic operates much like other Adventist Health facilities: It provides the same level of quality care to patients and believes in the power of whole-person health. It has medical staff onsite 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and staff are always on call for emergencies. The only difference is that these patients are in handcuffs.

The inmates are often surprised at the level of compassion they receive from the new medical team. Once, while providing care to an inmate with a history of frequent visits to the jail, Eric says that the inmate turned to him and said, “What’s going on here? This medical care is completely different.” To which Eric responded, “Well, I’m from Adventist Health. We really care about you as a person. We want to give you the best care and get you well.”

Adventist Health’s “superstar” medical team not only provides top-notch care to their patients in the jail, they view it as their own personal ministry. Larry Hamilton, who has been a nurse for Adventist Health for nearly 34 years, is one of those people. Larry is a lay minister and a skilled missionary nurse who seized this opportunity to put his skills to use. “Larry is truly living our mission every day—providing care through health, wholeness and hope,” Eric says.

Sheriff Andy Long, who has been working for the Sheriff’s Office for 25 years, is grateful for the partnership with Adventist Health. For years he saw the high turnover with medical staff.  “We were in such despair for nurses that one came out of retirement to help—five times,” he says. When Adventist Health’s team came in and set up the clinic, Sheriff Long says it was a blessing that both facilities were working together around the same mission—because medical care, no matter in what setting—is something we all deserve.

“We’re here to serve everyone,” Eric says. “We love the sometimes unlovable—it’s our calling and our mission.”

*Photo: Larry Hamilton and Stacey Stockton in the Tillamook County Jail clinic

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