Patients, staff make case for Zambarano as McKee meets for talks


BURRILLVILLE – A woman with chronic epilepsy who came to the hospital unable to move or understand even basic cues such as colors and shapes; a man who cannot speak, and can only eat pureed foods; patients who have no use of their hands, and must power wheelchairs with their mouths or chins…

These are the residents of Zambarano Hospital, and this week, several joined longtime staff members in speaking out on the importance of the facility in the care of Rhode Island’s most vulnerable population.

“I am not just a patient in a bed here,” wrote Amy Drake, a resident at the hospital for the past three years, in a letter to members of the Burrillville Town Council. Drake notes she landed in the hospital as she recovered from a coma, and has received therapy since. “Without this hospital, I’d have nowhere to go.”

Members of the council have received several such letters since the state announced last week that two of the six wings at Zambarano would be closing, with nearly two dozen patients discharged.

While Gov. Gina Raimondo has stated that she does not intend to close the facility, a unit of Eleanor Slater Hospital that provides long-term acute and post-acute care for patients with complex medical and psychiatric needs, local officials say they’ve been kept in the dark regarding plans for the state-run facility. With a cost-saving effort underway to restructure the Eleanor Slater system, which also includes the John O. Pastore Center in Cranston, many have expressed fear in recent days for Zambarano’s future.

“There is incredibly special care that the patients receive at Zambarano,” said Council President Donald Fox this week. “In some cases, it’s the only place where the patients can receive this care.”

Council members took up the issue on Wednesday, unanimously passing a resolution asking that, “all activity to modify the operations and disposition of the Zambarano facility be held in abeyance until the town and state can work constructively to find options and alternative to maintain operations.”

“Zambarano, located in one of Rhode Island’s most beautiful natural resources, should be prioritized and its use maximized,” the resolution notes.

It seems the councilors are not alone in the assessment.

“My life is what it is because of it,” wrote patient Jose Brandon, a 54-year-old man who’s been in hospital care since he was hit by a drunk driver at the age of 17. “People in this hospital all know me and what I need to stay healthy.”

“The value of this hospital could never be described,” Brandon stated in the communication – which he notes had to be dictated from a system staff implemented to help him communicate.

Built in 1905 as a state sanatorium for tuberculosis, the hospital is situated by Wallum Lake and was once self-sufficient, with farming facilities, a greenhouse, hen coops, a slaughterhouse and stables.

In recent years, it has become the only option in the state for patients in need of constant and complex care.

“I don’t think I would survive anywhere else,” wrote Judith Pella a 56-year-old patient who said diabetes put her into a three-week coma 11 years ago, and she’s been unable to walk since. “I need the support of my doctor, my dietician and my nurses to keep my medical conditions under control.”

Longtime staff members also pointed to the hospital’s unique equipment and services.

“While the focus of care should always be on patients living in the least restrictive environment, many do not realize that for some, this is that place,” wrote occupational therapist Lisa Kline. “Those who are behaviorally and physically challenged have achieved a level of independence and freedom that would not be available in alternative settings based on their complexity.”

“We differ from insurance-driven facilities in the fact that we can obtain, customize, train and maintain all the equipment that is used here to each individual,” wrote Allan Ducharme, who has worked as an adaptive equipment specialist at the hospital for more than 50 years. “This is not possible in nursing homes.”

Ducharme noted that without the equipment provided at Zambarano thanks to long-standing working relationships with vendors, private parties and community donation combined with his customization, many of the patients would spend their days in bed.

Lt. Gov. Dan McKee, who is slated to assume state governorship as Raimondo moves on to a role in the Biden administration, met this week with Sen. Jessica de la Cruz and Rep. David Place to discuss the hospital.

de la Cruz said McKee said he can not make any promises regarding Zambarano’s future. Still, with the representatives scheduled to meet once again with the governor-to-be, many remain hopeful. The senator has said that she requested the same from Raimondo, and that six months later, she has yet to receive a response.

“We communicated the necessity of keeping this hospital open as it remains the only option for long-term acute care in Rhode Island,” de la Cruz noted.

Those who want to receive updates on the future of the hospital have been asked to sign the petition here.

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