Texas Health’s Dallas hospital tries to repair its reputation after Ebola missteps

Texas Health Resources headquarters in Arlington

Amy Ellis Nutt (c) 2014, The Washington Post.

DALLAS — Texas Health Presbyterian is a hospital that appears to want to do the little things to ease people’s fears, even if it’s a bit of faux intimacy. The legend for the elevator in the parking garage doesn’t list floors by numbers or colors but by the names of flowers: Daisy for the lower lobby, followed by Indian Paintbrush, Bluebonnet, Sunflower and Thistle.

Now, after a series of admitted missteps in handling the first patient diagnosed with Ebola in this country, and amid reports of patients canceling appointments and elective surgeries, the hospital is taking on two monumental challenges at once: reassuring people frightened by the specter of the deadly Ebola virus and trying to repair its tattered reputation.

An eerie quiet smothered the hospital’s vast campus of tawny-colored buildings on a humid autumn afternoon this week. The wide second-floor corridor of Presbyterian, lined with couches and armchairs, was virtually uninhabited. A white-haired woman in the lobby sat at a baby grand piano, fingering the melody to “As Time Goes By.”

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On the third floor of the Hamon Tower, where the intensive care unit is located, the wing that had become a makeshift isolation ward for two weeks has no patients now. Thomas Eric Duncan is dead and infected nurses Nina Pham and Amber Vinson have been transferred to medical facilities in Maryland and Atlanta. No more need for hazmat-suited doctors and nurses, no Tyvek head-to-toe gowns, no positive-pressure respirators — for now.

There also is no need for security officers to check in staff, twice, at a series of double doors that lead from the main hallway into the isolation unit. Only three of the more than two dozen rooms made ready for possible Ebola patients were ever occupied, and all of them are now empty, their bedside monitors and machines silent.

More than 75 health-care workers, most from the ICU, have been told to stay at home after coming in contact with Duncan, Pham or Vinson. And now even the public seems to be avoiding the hospital. The valets who park cars for visitors say business has slowed significantly since the Ebola scare.

At least one physician at Texas Health Presbyterian said that fewer patients are being seen at the hospital. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to talk about the hospital, he said there had been a significant number of canceled appointments, especially in elective surgery. Worse, he added, was the mood of the hospital personnel, specifically the frontline health-care workers.

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“The morale of the nurses is in the toilet,” he said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the hospital hired the blue chip public relations firm of Burson-Marsteller last Friday and then took a major step Thursday by finally owning up to its mistakes — twice in one day.

First, a hospital executive phoned Duncan’s grieving girlfriend with a personal mea culpa Thursday morning, after which Louise Troh released a statement through the Wilshire Baptist Church of Dallas.

“The purpose of this call was to apologize to me for the death of my fiancé,” Troh said, “and to express regret that the hospital was not able to save his life. This official said the hospital was ‘deeply sorry’ for the way this tragedy played out.”

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While the call was eight days after Duncan’s death, Troh expressed her gratitude for it: “I am grateful to the hospital for this personal call. I am grateful to God that this leader reached out and took responsibility for the hospital’s actions. Hearing this information will help me as I mourn Eric’s death.”

Then, hours later, before a meeting of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the clinical director of Texas Health Resources, Daniel Varga, offered another, saying in a prepared statement, “Unfortunately, in our initial treatment of Mr. Duncan, despite our best intentions and a highly skilled medical team, we made mistakes. . . . We did not correctly diagnose his symptoms as those of Ebola. We are deeply sorry.”

Regret, however, hasn’t helped boost the ranks of depleted personnel. In a statement released Thursday that also included a message of thanks from Pham before being transferred to a National Institutes of Health facility in Bethesda, the hospital explained its decision:

“With many of the medical professionals who would normally staff the intensive care unit sidelined for continuous monitoring, it is in the best interest of Nina, hospital employees, nurses, physicians and the community to give the hospital an opportunity to prepare for whatever comes next.”

Despite repeated requests to the hospital public relations team, as well as representatives of Burson-Marsteller, to speak to one of the hospital administrators, no one was made available. One hospital spokesman, however, sent this email to the media Thursday night: “Nina Pham is en route to Love Field. We are asking through our social media channels for Dallas commuters who might pass her ambulance to honk their horns in support.”

“I saw the beginning of AIDS,” orthopedic surgeon Charles Banta said, referring to the fear that can overcome the public when a new, deadly infection makes its first appearance even as the medical community gropes to find answers. “No one has ever trained for [Ebola]. Did the hospital administrators not handle this well in the beginning? Yes. . . . This is a good hospital that just wasn’t prepared, and it cost Mr. Duncan his life and two nurses were infected.”

The new “now” for Texas Health Presbyterian, at least for the time being, is a mix of the old and the unfamiliar. At night, as the hospital winds down and the evening shift arrives, there are two distinct sounds coming from the campus. One comes from outside — the deep-throated hum of generators rippling out from a nearby line of TV trucks. The other from inside the entrance to the hospital, where someone has switched on the electronic player attached to that baby grand piano. The chair in front will be empty all night, but soft melodies will float through the vacant corridors until dawn.

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