In the 1981 movie “Absence of Malice” a frightened young woman whose secret has been exposed by an aggressive reporter tiptoes up the sidewalks of residential Miami in the early morning, gathering freshly delivered newspapers from the doorsteps in a desperate effort to put the stopper back in the bottle.
Eric Russell’s Sept. 8 article on the Down East Community Hospital in Machias reminded me of that scene.
DECH administrators are learning what other public figures already know — once a pot is stirred, ignoring it will not stop the water from boiling. A meaningful response is in order.
With about 250 employees and an $11 million annual payroll, DECH is Washington County’s largest employer. It is a “community” hospital and its actions are in the spotlight. Now, we in the Sunrise County wait for more sunlight to shine on this institution, sunlight that will heal rather than scorch.
Regardless of why Reid Emery died in the snow last winter, regardless of the reasons for the departure of several doctors and many staff, the public desperately needs to regain confidence and trust in DECH as a prominent health care facility.
Lacking public trust, the hospital will no longer attract quality staff and medical professionals. The community will no longer be a safe place to which retirees will relocate and where young families will continue to reside.
I propose a new, collaborative approach to this problem. First, hospital and community leaders should immediately form a hospital work group of 12 people. Area town selectmen will choose seven volunteers. The hospital board will designate five people. This group will convene public meetings outside the hospital, accept public input and report back to the DECH trustees with specific recommendations.
The work group would respect the privacy of individuals and the confidentiality of employees’ records and patient files protected under state and federal law. The work group would look at policy and public relations and not at pending lawsuits.
Second, form a permanent advisory group — other than the hospital’s incorporators that meet annually. Two other mainstays of Washington County — the University of Maine at Machias and the Washington County Sheriff’s Department — both operate with advisory groups to keep them connected with the communities they serve.
The university’s Board of Visitors, which meets quarterly, has 18 members who bring different perspectives from their community roles.
They meet directly with the university president, review financial figures and hear straight talk from her. All this takes a half-day, four times a year. Of course, it’s a surface overview of how things are going, but it is a time for board members to ask questions. Does the university president listen to suggestions and respond directly? You bet she does.
Similarly, the Blue Ribbon Committee has been a mechanism for regular public input to the sheriff’s department since Donnie Smith took office in January 2007. Working with a group of volunteer Washington County residents has been a valuable change for the sheriff’s office, which had its own image and operational problems previously. The public has been well-served by this advisory committee.
For DECH to take these actions would be a step in the right direction. The public hue and cry will not go away by hospital administrators’ turning a blind eye to it. Bad publicity, once out, cannot simply be lifted off the doorsteps and retracted into oblivion.
Katherine Cassidy of Machias is a candidate for the Maine House in District 32, representing Cutler, Eastport, Lubec, Machias, Machiasport, Roque Bluffs and Whiting.