Dispute arises after Hardin resident seeks shelter in BHC Hospital

Thursday, October 25, 2018
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Photo by Andrew Turck

Kenneth Devers drives his electronic wheelchair down Center Avenue in Hardin on Wednesday, Oct. 10. Due to his situation using a wheelchair, he would like a waiver to seek shelter in Big Horn County Memorial Hospital during times of cold weather.

The forecast was hazy on Sunday, Oct. 7 – with temperatures ranging from the high 30s to low 50s – when Kenneth Devers of Hardin arrived at the Big Horn County Memorial Hospital to warm himself. Devers uses an electronic wheelchair, and when he travels in the cold for too long, he said, his tendons draw up and “I can’t operate my chair, I run into stuff and I fall.”

“My body doesn’t regulate the temperature,” he said. “It takes a long time for me to feel the cold.”

Every other business in town, he said, had allowed him to come inside during these periods for a few minutes to recover, before he moved back out into colder weather. At the hospital, however, security – upon learning he was not there for treatment – asked him to leave. After Devers “raised his voice,” security called the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office, who escorted him off the premises late that morning.

Soon afterwards, Devers said, he “took a tumble” while trying to cash a check and laid on the ground for several minutes before someone saw him and helped him back into his seat. Following this experience, he would like the hospital – where he gets Xrays – to accommodate his situation.

The hospital’s Miles Avenue location, according to Devers, is “at the midpoint of town, where I live.”

“I’m not asking for sympathy,” he said. “I’m just asking, ‘Hey, as one human being to another, let me come in and warm up a little bit, because I can’t operate this thing.’”

Hospital CEO Kristi Gatrell, addressing the incident, said there were complications involved in letting Devers rest at the hospital – namely, that the facility is legally liable for anyone on its premises. He wanted her to give him a waiver that allowed him to stay in the building for 15-minute intervals, she continued, but if she gave him permission, she “would have to give everyone that right.”

With the beginning of the flu season, she added, the hospital often has visitor restrictions in effect.

“We’re here to provide medical care, not a warming shelter,” Gatrell said. “We do not have the room for this [and] we have to respect the privacy of our patients.”

During months where it may be too cold to go outside for Devers, Gatrell said, she hoped he could investigate resources to help him travel. She personally advised him to utilize Adult Protective Services; and the Council on Aging bus, which is adapted for wheelchair use within city limits.

The bus is available from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on weekdays, though Devers said this didn’t cover his schedule. Going out by himself, he added, gave him a stronger sense of independence he does not want to lose.

Three years ago, he said, his life changed when he fell and injured his vertebrae. At the time, he continued, he was in a state of alcohol addiction where he was “chasing hangover to hangover.” Now sobered up and with “the realization that God saved my life for a reason many, many, many times,” he wants to find a way to get involved in addiction counseling.

“I try to live independently; I choose not to live in a nursing home,” he said. “If I get stuck in the mud, there’s always someone there to help me out.”

While the hospital may not have offered a solution Devers wanted moving forward, Gatrell stressed that the staff will “never turn down care to anyone in medical need.”