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Patients and employees take stand against county closing Oak Forest Hospital long-term care facility

Friday, April 06, 2007
Chicago Defender
by Demetrius Patterson, Defender Staff Writer

For more than 18 years Louis Smith, 54, has called the long-term care facility of Oak Forest Hospital his home, but Cook County budget cuts could soon change that.
Part of a sprawling 340-acre hospital campus in Oak Forest, the long-term care facility has served the community of Cook County since the early 1900s, and is part of the Bureau of Health Services, which is threatened with severe cuts to help balance the county's budget.
But Smith and many of the other approximately 150 patients at the facility believe the county is playing Russian roulette with their lives since those who use the 220-bed ward suffer from severe paralysis and have been told they must vacate by Sept. 1.
Smith, other Oak Forest patients (many in wheelchairs), doctors, clergy and community activists plan to protest the closing of the long-term care facility at a rally starting at 2:15 p.m. today.
 "I came here a few years after I suffered from a gunshot wound in 1979," Smith said. "When I came here, I had bed sores, but not anymore. I am a quadriplegic. When I came here they told me that this is my home. Now they are telling me that this is not my home anymore.
 "They give good care here. And I don't think we can get this type of care anywhere else no matter where we go."
 Dr. Srinives Jolepalem provides care for many of the patents at Oak Forest Hospital.
"We want to save the long-term care at Oak Forest," Jolepalem said. "This is the only long-term care facility in the whole county. It has been here since like the early 1900s. It's well established and helped many poor and sick people. It will be a shame to close it because it's not making enough money."
James Muhammad, spokesman for the patients and communications director for SEIU Local 20 union, said today's scheduled rally is symbolic in hopes of getting county decision makers to show some compassion.
 "These are patients who need long-term care," Muhammad said. "Many, if not all of them, are in wheelchairs, bedridden and have some type of paralysis. And they all need the type of constant care they get in Oak Forest.
 "We are doing this on Good Friday because of the significance of the day. Many of the Cook County officials will be in church today and for Easter Sunday. We just want them to show some compassion on Easter Sunday and Good Friday, and do what Jesus would have done, help the needy. Many of the residents have been out at Oak Forest for 10 or more years. So it's like a home for most of them, and you will be uprooting them from their home-like environment."
 Many of the patients don't have family that can take care of them and they have heard horror stories of nursing homes that neglect clients, Muhammad said. As a result, they are suffering from high anxiety and fear that they might not live long under those conditions."
 Glenn Wise, 46, is one of those patients who fears going into a nursing home.
 "I have been here for 18 years and I have no backup plan at all," Wise, who is also a quadriplegic, said. "They told us they are going to have a nursing home fair out here and let us see what they have to offer. I'm in a position, because I am a quad, where I have certain problems… My blood pressure can go from normal to like over 180 in a few minutes. If there's no doctors there, I could easily go into a stroke."
 "They have been telling me for 18 years that this is your home and don't worry, and now it's like you're on your own," Wise continued. "I just think that what they are doing now will cause many people to die."
 Jolepalem said, "One way to keep it open, more efficient billing," Jolepalem said. "Before, they were not even billing. It's not the patients' fault that they haven't been billing. And we were taking care of people who didn't live in the county. So if they can put all the checks and balances in place, maybe they can cut expenses and waste."
Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-5th), whose district includes Oak Forest, told the Defender Thursday that she doesn't think the long-term care facility can be forced to close.
"As far as I know right now, Dr. (Robert) Simon (Bureaus of Health Services interim chief) cannot close the long-term care unit he gets approval from the state," Sims said. "And the patients have an option to say that they don't want to move."
 Sims said she tried to put amendments back in the budget to keep the facility off of the chopping block, but wasn't successful in getting them all in.
 "I have talked to some of the patients and I talked to some of their family members over the phone, but I won't be out there tomorrow because I have a funeral to attend," Sims said. "But I don't believe we should close that facility. I don't believe there are any other options, because I don't believe it should close. I believe we should keep that long-term facility right there."
Rev. Ronald G. Clay Sr., chaplain at the hospital, told the Defender Thursday that he hope as many people as possible come out and block the streets to show their unhappiness over the wing's proposed demise.
"We're trying to get the attention in regards to the plight of the long-term patients at Oak Forest Hospital," Clay said. "I feel like those patients are my family. I've been ministering there for almost nine years, and I was a patient there myself at one time. It's a shame that all those patients will be displaced and many doctors and nurses will lose their jobs."
 Clay added that a lot of patients can't even speak for themselves due to their disabilities and are just being discarded by the county system.
"They want to stay there; they want to stay where they are," Clay said. "If (Cook County Board President Todd) Stroger can hire persons that he says are needed, then he can keep this hospital open. We had a commissioner come out - I won't say the name - and he put more fear in the patients than giving them some comfort and some answers."
 Clay said patients received letters stating that they will have to start moving by May 1, and be out by September 1.


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