‘It was just excruciating pain’: Hospital capacity forces Lee County woman to go 3 hours away for care

Coronavirus Hospitalizations

LEE COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) —”I was in the barn feeding horses, and we were moving some things around,” remembered Arlene Kalmbach.

That’s when she felt a bite and figured it was another scorpion. But a few minutes later, she felt the pain travel up her leg.

“My husband and I knew this was not a normal reaction,” she said.

The Lee County residents went to their nearest emergency room, in Caldwell, where they told Kalmbach she had been bitten by a black widow spider.

She says within a few hours, the doctor told them they had exhausted all their resources and needed to send her somewhere else.

“The ER doctor was attempting to find a hospital to transfer me to, which would’ve logically been somewhere in College Station or Bryan, since we’re only 30 minutes away,” Kalmbach said.

But they were informed the doctor couldn’t find a place to send her.

“He checked in the Brazos Valley, and there wasn’t anything available… He told my husband he checked St. David’s and Seton in Austin,” she said.

Arlene Kalmbach says her kids weren’t allowed into her hospital room due to COVID-19 safety protocols. She snapped this picture from a distanced visit during her seven-day stay at Peterson Regional Medical Center. (Courtesy: Arlene Kalmbach)

KXAN has reached out to both health systems for comment about Kalmbach’s transfer attempt. St. David’s says they cannot provide KXAN with that information. Ascension Seton has not yet responded.

KXAN also reached out to Kambach’s original ER facility, which said it could not comment on any specific patient but offered this explanation:

St. Joseph Health does transfer patients when necessary, such as when a patient needs a higher level of care. Under normal circumstances, patients are transferred to the most appropriate care setting if it is safe to do so. In a crisis situation, such as an unprecedented surge in critically ill COVID-19 patients, most or all other nearby care centers may be experiencing similar constraints, which can make the transfer process more complex. As with every situation, we follow recommended treatments and protocols and have ongoing conversations with the families of these patients to ensure they understand the best course of treatment and whether a transfer is needed for patients whose conditions worsen and require a higher level of care.

St. Joseph Health

“I thought, you know, it’s reaching my chest I can’t– I won’t be able to breathe,” she says.

Friends in Kerrville found out Peterson Regional Medical Center may have availability — three hours away.

“I just couldn’t believe I was all the way in Kerrville when there’s so many — like there’s a major city between me and Kerrville,” Kalmbach said.

Kaeli Dressler, Chief Nursing Officer at Peterson Regional, says they’ve been fielding calls every day from other hospitals asking to transfer their patients.

“All hospitals, their typical transfer patterns or pathways… are interrupted and disrupted, because being over capacity,” Dressler told KXAN News over the phone. “And so, they just begin circling in wider and wider circles trying to find a hospital that has capacity.”

Arlene Kalmbach says her children took this picture as she was looking down at them during a distanced visit at Peterson Regional Medical Center. (Courtesy: Arlene Kalmbach)

Dressler says her nurses have been taking on extra shifts for months now. She says they take requests for transfers on a case-by-case basis, because their own capacity “can change moment to moment.”

Dressler says over the last four weeks, they’ve been seeing an increase or sustained increase in COVID-19 patients. On Wednesday evening, they had six ICU beds available.

Dressler says they always try to help other hospitals who need to transfer a patient, because they may need the favor returned — but their space is also limited.

Kalmbach is grateful her situation worked out.

“You hear all about how medical staff and hospital facilities are overloaded,” Kalmbach said. “But you only think COVID. You forget that everything else is still happening.”

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