[TW: This article discusses suicide, depression, and inappropriate medical and psychiatric treatment.]
When Rachel Sipress ’21 checked themselves into MidHudson Regional Hospital on Saturday, March 31, they had no idea that they would end up held against their wishes for nearly a week. Sipress had been struggling to manage their Type 1 diabetes due to intense bouts of simple partial seizures caused by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and was also concerned that they might have sustained cranial damage. “Basically, I was in the ER for 10 hours,” said Sipress, who was evaluated via video chat by a tele-psychiatrist at MidHudson. Sipress eventually received a prognosis of psychosis and was involuntarily committed to the psychiatric ward, where they continued to have seizures, and their blood sugar spiked and dipped due to inadequate administration of insulin by staff. “All hospitals are supposed to have a certified diabetes technician,” explained Sipress. “They did not. They were totally mismanaging my diabetes.” Despite checking into the ER on Saturday, Sipress was not able to see a doctor until the following Monday, nor a neurologist until Tuesday. “If you call an ambulance on this campus, you will be sent to this hospital, and it’s criminally dangerous,” Sipress elaborated. “Like, they almost killed me.”
On April 6, 2019, Sipress shared their experience on Facebook, prompting other students to do the same. This development marks increased recognition of an issue that students have been addressing since before spring break, including initiating contact with Vassar administrators to call for better health care for students and Poughkeepsie community members alike.
Although Sipress’ post directed public attention toward MidHudson, theirs is not the first mistreatment to take place at the hospital. Earlier in the semester, another group of students had been working with President Bradley, Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana and Dean of Students Luis Inoa in response to personal experiences with the hospital. One of these students, Clara LeBlanc ’21, shared that she had faced similar treatment in January 2018 after having been drugged at a party.
LeBlanc explained that, after consuming a glass of wine, she began vomiting and wandering around Raymond Avenue. Individuals who she later deduced were either Vassar Security or police officers called an ambulance. At MidHudson, LeBlanc explained, “Nurses were yelling at me and being mean to me, and I didn’t understand why.” Suspecting that someone had drugged her, LeBlanc requested blood and urine tests. The staff refused. Frustrated and confused, LeBlanc sought clarification from a female security guard, to no avail: “She basically was like, ‘Yeah, there’s nothing we can do, and if you want to prevent this in the future…you shouldn’t dress like that.’”
LeBlanc recounted that the hospital staff claimed she had acted aggressively and sedated her. MidHudson discharged her without providing any information about what drug they had administered—which rendered her almost unable to walk—or a wheelchair. LeBlanc recalled feeling foggy in the week and a half following, suggesting that her condition was not the result of alcohol poisoning. Concerned that she may have been drugged with something dangerous, Connor McShaffrey ’21, who carried LeBlanc out of the hospital, researched the sedatives she had received. Examining her patient files, he uncovered that LeBlanc had received heavy, mind-altering drugs, including one known to interact dangerously with alcohol. LeBlanc explained, “If they thought I was really drunk, they should not have given that to me.”
Students have also raised serious concerns regarding mental health care at the hospital—one of them being Olivia Dontsov ’19. “I was essentially having a panic attack at 2 in the morning, so I EMS-ed myself,” recalled Dontsov, whose hospitalization on March 8 was precipitated by the unavailability of adequate psychiatric care. “Because of how I was feeling, I used the word ‘suicidal’ in the call…then, like, 10 police officers showed up[.]” One of the officers asked Dontsov how they felt about being hospitalized; Dontsov responded that they did not think it was necessary, but the other officer informed them that they had no choice in the matter and instructed them to pack up and get ready to go. They recalled, “He basically accused me of stalling and not getting my stuff quickly enough…it was not the best way to respond to someone in that situation.”
Having arrived at MidHudson via ambulance, Dontsov was alarmed by the bedside manner they received. One of the first doctors to examine Dontsov raised particularly strong concerns: “I explained how I was feeling, [and] his response was like, ‘So you really think that your parents would feel better if you just killed yourself ?’” recalled Dontsov. “I was like, ‘No!’ and he was like, ‘Maybe you should think about that next time.’” Summing up treatment throughout their stay, Dontsov reflected, “It was so clear that no one at that hospital was trained to deal with mental illness whatsoever.”
Dontsov surrendered their belongings and was taken to the ER psychiatric ward, where they were informed that they would be speaking to a social worker and then to a professional via video chat. “They didn’t offer me any blanket or anything to sleep,” Dontsov said, “so I assumed that I would be talking to someone soon.” About an hour later, they were woken by the social worker. “I was expected to speak intelligently about what was going on,” they recalled. “She was perfectly nice, but it’s 4:30 in the morning, and I’ve gotten one hour of sleep.” They were woken once more at around 9 by someone else in the ward screaming, and then the sounds of a staff member speaking with the distressed individual. Dontsov elaborated, “She came up to the girl and basically told her, ‘You’re acting like a child. You’re never going to get out of here if you keep throwing tantrums like that.’ … Instead of trying to comfort her, [the employee was] basically accusing her of overreacting.” At no point was Dontsov offered their daily medication.
Dontsov’s video conference yielded a diagnosis of major depressive disorder and the suggestion of a longer stay. “[She] told me that I should be hospitalized for the next few weeks, which I did not want to do,” Dontsov explained. “I wanted to get the fuck out of there.” Throughout the conversation, Dontsov was unclear as to what their rights were—whether the suggestion was simply a recommendation or a necessity, and indeed whether they could leave the hospital at all. “No one sat down with me and talked to me about what I could and couldn’t have done in that situation,” said Dontsov, who was released once their parents arrived and completed the requisite paperwork. “It was like they wanted to punish you basically for asking for help…that’s the only reason I wanted to leave, because I was made to feel like I shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”
Widespread student response, including the willingness to share personal experiences and Facebook comments left on a post by LeBlanc explaining the outreach that she, McShaffrey and Gabrielle Costner ’21 initiated, demonstrates that these stories are instances of a larger phenomenon at play. McShaffrey explained, “It’s only in the light of more recent interactions that people [recognize], ‘It wasn’t just me, it wasn’t a fluke.’”
Failures in providing adequate student health care extend beyond MidHudson and permeate Vassar’s campus. For one, Baldwin has a habit of referring students to MidHudson because it serves ease of acquiring patient files. However, this had not been McShaffrey and LeBlanc’s experience. Staff at Baldwin were unable to locate LeBlanc’s files quickly, which prompted him and LeBlanc’s mother to locate them independently. Additionally, when McShaffrey explained to Baldwin staff that he believed MidHudson’s sedative may have caused LeBlanc’s symptoms following her discharge and asked if it could be why she was in this state, the staff appeared to use Google to fact-check him: “They said, ‘Oh yeah, I guess you’re right.’ And then I got upset, because one of the Baldwin faculty members had been defending MidHudson and I was thinking this is a terrible medical practice,” recalled McShaffrey. They proceeded to explain that it was common protocol to sedate someone if they were being uncooperative, told LeBlanc what the sedative’s half-life would be and when they thought the neurological effects would wear off, and put her on health advisory.
For McShaffrey, suspicion toward Baldwin began in his first semester, when they diagnosed him with, in his words, “literally, not appendicitis.” McShaffrey had been experiencing extreme abdominal pain, and decided to walk to Baldwin for evaluation. According to McShaffrey, “They said they had no idea what it is, but the one thing that we know, is that it is not your appendix.” He called in for health advisory the next day, which necessitated another examination. McShaffrey related: “A different Baldwin employee…said, ‘There’s a slight possibility you need emergency surgery. Can you drive home?’ And I said I hadn’t eaten in over a day, I’m lightheaded and dazed, and then they were like, ‘[M]aybe you can have someone drive you in your car, or call a taxi or an Uber. Try to get there maybe before the end of the day, because maybe it is your appendix.’” McShaffrey sent out messages on social media requesting a ride to the ER. Upon arriving, he was sent to emergency surgery because his appendix was enlarged to three times its size. Minutes before surgery, he received an email from the same Baldwin employee who diagnosed him with “not appendicitis” checking in on his “stomach virus.” McShaffrey responded, “Will email you back tomorrow. They’re about to take out my appendix.” He summarized, “So really strong medical system we have going on here.”
Beyond Vassar medical services, students have also encountered difficulties with emergency personnel. When a friend of McShaffrey, LeBlanc and Costner began exhibiting neurological issues following LSD use, McShaffrey contacted Metcalf for an emergency evaluation. Metcalf professionals called an ambulance with hopes that McShaffrey would stay with his friend, grounding him in a reality that was becoming increasingly difficult to grasp. McShaffrey informed the EMTs who arrived that, in a clearer state, his friend expressed that he did not want to go to MidHudson. One EMT became frustrated with McShaffrey and informed him that they had to go to MidHudson because Vassar Brothers does not have a psychiatric ward. The EMTs then took McShaffrey’s friend. As McShaffrey recalls, “They tried to drive away without me seeing him. They only let me say a sentence to him before they shut the door in my face.”
In response to McShaffrey’s and LeBlanc’s experiences as well as those of a friend, the two reached out to administration in concert with Costner. “We started a discourse with Dean Alamo and President Bradley after our friend’s experience,” McShaffrey related, “But our efforts to hear others’ stories started with Rachel. They put that in motion.” The three have proposed a range of changes to address student safety and wellbeing, including the temporary handling of all medical emergencies by Vassar Brothers and the handling of psychiatric emergencies by Putnam Hospital Center in Carmel, NY. Putnam’s location outside Dutchess County, however, makes viable transportation from Vassar a challenge: In an emailed statement to The Miscellany News on behalf of administration, Alamo explained that emergency medical services are only allowed to transport students within the county. Nevertheless, McShaffrey emphasized the importance of disseminating information about MidHudson’s less than satisfactory practices. Noting the superiority of Vassar Brothers, he commented, “I think what would be good for Vassar students to know as a whole is that, A, there is that disparity in care between the two institutions, and that both are viable options, and that B, admin are actively working with students to make those changes.”
For their part, Dontsov questioned the efficacy of making a blanket statement on MidHudson without further investigation: “I think it really depends on each individual situation,” they said. “I don’t know if it’s a matter of cutting all ties…but at the very least there should be more consideration to the fact that there are this many people who are having problems, [and] if there aren’t those kinds of problems happening at other hospitals in the region, maybe Vassar should consider using those instead.” Sipress suggested that, in a future relationship between Vassar and MidHudson, the hospital could be conceptualized as a case study in ways that health care administration can be improved. Costner noted, “This isn’t just a Vassar issue … It’s happening to the Poughkeepsie community”—a sentiment that Sipress also expressed, indicating the evolution of their stance: On April 7, they posted, via the unFramed Facebook page, a call for Vassar to take the lead in demanding MidHudson’s closure. On April 8, they posted a revised statement calling for investigation rather than closing, and, after meeting with Bradley, they posted again on April 10 stating that an investigation would not be the most strategic choice, but assuring that “Vassar will be pushing for systemic changes in hospital practice for all patients.”
LeBlanc suggested that this push could involve Vassar having a hand in shaping MidHudson leadership: “There’s currently a seat on [MidHudson’s] board of directors that’s opened up…so hopefully Vassar is able to have some input on who is put up there.” Speaking to the possibility of stronger ties between Vassar and area medical centers, Alamo confirmed, “We have…met with representatives from [Vassar Brothers and Putnam County Hospital] to discuss what future partnerships might look like. These conversations are still in the very early stages and there are significant challenges that still need to be sorted out.” Alamo also discussed the potential establishment of a case manager position, which would be responsible for working with students sent to the hospital for emergency medical or mental health evaluations. Overall, McShaffrey indicated that administrators have been responsive to student concerns: “President Bradley and Dean Alamo were appalled by the stories … Right now it’s a lot of orienting and getting a grasp on what’s going on and figuring out what the most efficient way to move forward is while helping as many people as possible.”
Adequately addressing student wellbeing and improving Poughkeepsie hospitals are long-term projects, and discourse will be ongoing as students and administrators alike address issues in mental and physical health care. In order to further this project, Costner has created a document compiling student stories, which will eventually be shared with administration. More broadly, Sipress has made contact with Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo to discuss upgrading care for Type 1 diabetes patients nationwide. Back on campus, students are encouraged to share their concerns, as personal accounts can help administration understand shortcomings and direct the course of future actions. “Based on student experiences…we are evaluating the services we offer,” stated Alamo. Looking toward a potential future in which students need not fear for their emotional and physical welfare when entering a facility ostensibly devoted to their wellbeing, he continued: “Navigating the many aspects of care can be daunting. Our hope is that through proactive conversations with our community partners, we can find a way to improve students’ experiences with care on and off campus.”
Addendum: Following The Miscellany News’ request for comment, MidHudson Regional Hospital provided the following statement: “While we cannot comment on any specific case, we can tell you that we have very clear protocols regarding the treatment of patients and the measures we take to ensure their safety and privacy, the safety of visitors, and the safety of our workforce. We always endeavor to work directly with our patients and their caregivers, as appropriate, to make sure we are meeting their expectations and the standard of care they require from a clinical quality, safety, patient experience and privacy perspective.”