Widow left to wonder if suicide could have been avoided — (Lawrence Journal-World)

Original article no longer available

Lawrence Journal-World

By Eric Weslander, Journal-World

Monday, May 16, 2005

Rose Foster says her husband’s death shows importance of LMH having inpatient mental health care

She’ll never know for certain.

But the widow of a Lawrence man who committed suicide by jumping off a downtown parking garage last year said she wondered whether an inpatient mental health unit in Lawrence could have saved his life.

Gordon Foster, 40, a father of two and an accountant with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, had been admitted to Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s inpatient mental health unit at least three times for severe depression. He jumped to his death on May 4, 2004, shortly after the hospital closed its mental health inpatient unit.

“I do wonder if there had been a facility for him to go to here in Lawrence, if he would have taken his life that night,” said his widow, Rose Foster. “I know that Gordon felt like he was out of options.”

Foster said she wanted to make clear she was not blaming LMH. But she’s breaking a yearlong silence about the death because she thinks her husband’s case shows the importance of inpatient mental health care.

“(The unit) was a place where he felt safe, and we felt comfortable visiting him there,” she said.

The hospital closed the adult portion of the unit in September 2003 and its geriatric portion of the unit on May 1, 2004.

Some have called for a unit to be re-established. Hospital CEO Gene Meyer insists it’s not feasible at LMH unless something changes.

Rose Foster’s husband, Gordon, committed suicide a year ago by jumping off a downtown parking garage. Foster wonders whether an inpatient mental health unit at Lawrence Memorial Hospital closing less than a week before could have saved his life. Gordon Foster had checked himself into the unit more than once.

At the time the unit closed, Meyer said, there weren’t enough psychiatrists in Lawrence willing and able to do inpatient care. The average daily count of three or four patients in the unit wasn’t enough to keep staff members challenged, he said.

“The numbers were not justifying that kind of care,” he said.

Meyer said it would be irresponsible for him to speculate about Gordon Foster’s case. But he pointed out that the hospital’s emergency room treated 900 people last year who were diagnosed with a mental health issue.

“The ER is always there,” he said. “Nine hundred people did choose that as an option.”

Of those 900, 333 were then transferred to out-of-town inpatient units such as the one at Stormont-Vail West in Topeka. LMH also plans to convert an emergency-room waiting area into a “stabilization” area for some mental health patients.

That’s not inpatient care. But Meyer said he thought that combination of care was enough.

LMH preferred

Rose Foster, however, said her family preferred LMH’s inpatient care to that at Stormont-Vail West, where Gordon Foster also had been hospitalized three or four times. LMH was closer to home, and he seemed more comfortable there, Rose Foster said.

Gordon Foster was first diagnosed with severe depression in 1995. Through the years, he attempted suicide at least four times and tried a list of medications so long that Rose Foster can’t remember them all.

When he was admitted to the hospital, he’d be able to stay a couple weeks at most. Sometimes, workers at the hospitals would have to argue with his insurer to approve more days, Rose Foster said.

“He probably needed to be in the hospital three or four months. It was never long enough,” Rose Foster said. “It was long enough to stabilize him and get him out of immediate danger.”

She said her husband was seeing a psychiatrist in Topeka regularly and taking medication at the time of his death. But she said he was reluctant to check himself in to Stormont-Vail because he’d had electroshock therapy there in the past and didn’t want to undergo it again.

Looking ahead

Meyer said changes to the health insurance industry were partly to blame for the low numbers of people in the inpatient unit before it closed. In recent decades, the industry has put more emphasis on outpatient care, he said.

“The whole pendulum has swung,” he said. “The whole industry has changed, and mental health care is one component of it.”

Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center recently announced it will study how to make inpatient care happen again in Lawrence. Meyer said the hospital’s board has agreed to help with the study by giving Bert Nash details about the costs of its inpatient unit.

But he said the board declined Bert Nash’s request to appoint hospital board members to the committee that’s working on the issue. He said the board wanted to wait and see what would come from a different group studying the issue, the Community Health Improvement Project.