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Annette Yates poses for a portrait with a photo of herself and her husband, James Richard Yates, on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020, in Yakima, Wash. The photo was taken in 2007, when James was with Annette at Astria Regional Medical Center as she battled Stevens-Johnson syndrome. Astria Regional nurses gave the framed photo to Yates. James died three years ago.

Several years ago, a nurse at Astria Regional Medical Center recognized the signs of Stevens-Johnson syndrome in Yakima patient Annette Yates. Yates credits that diagnosis, as well as the care she received at Astria Regional over the years, for saving her life.

One sign of the syndrome, which affects fewer than 20,000 people in the U.S. each year, is flu-like symptoms. Yates thought that was all she had when she ventured to the regional hospital in 2006, until painful blisters started spreading over her skin.

After the diagnosis, Yates spent 52 days in the hospital. During that time, she said nurses brought her pans of water each evening, soaked her feet, then picked the dead skin off from the blisters so she would be in less pain. They also made sure she showered each day and was comfortable.

Yates had been to Regional before, in 2001 for a brain tumor, and has been back since, with her most recent visit being for knee surgery in December. She said staff who knew her came away from their other duties to say hello and check in with her.

“They talk to you and help you through it, and you don’t get that at other hospitals,” she said.

Astria Health closed Regional in Yakima this week as part of Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Losses at Regional totaled $40 million since the organization purchased it in late August 2017, and Astria Health was unable to find additional financing, a partner or a buyer for the hospital.

The emergency department closed Monday, and Regional transferred its last patients Tuesday. An attempt by the Washington State Nurses Association to slow or halt the closure Tuesday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court failed.

The hospital had 214 beds, though the patient census had gone down in recent months. Astria hospitals in Sunnyside and Toppenish remain open. Astria primary care clinics, Astria’s Ambulatory Surgical Center, the Plastic Surgery Center, Home Health and Hospice and the Astria Hearing and Speech Center in Yakima continue to operate.

Yates, who is turning 83 this year, worries about what she’ll do if she needs additional emergency care. She’s not willing to go to the other local hospital, Virginia Mason Memorial, saying she has concerns about wait times and care. She said she likely would go to Astria Toppenish Hospital, a trip that would add 20 minutes onto the drive she would have made to Regional.

But she fears she might not have survived her past illnesses had Regional not been an option, and she had needed to make that drive.

“If I was really sick, I wouldn’t be able to drive to Toppenish,” she said. “I feel like moving out of Yakima. If I don’t have a hospital to go to that I trust, then why do I live here? With Regional closing, where are people to go?”

Cardiac care

Other patients who reached out to the Yakima Herald-Republic said they were grateful for Regional’s care and saddened by a decline in management and leadership in recent years.

Ellensburg resident Richard Bueschel wrote that he had a cardiac emergency in 2004 and was transported to Astria Regional.

“Dr. Sharma performed open heart surgery on me and saved my life,” Bueschel wrote. “He and his team were the ultimate professionals, as were the staff at the hospital.”

Bueschel shared concerns that if he had the same emergency situation today, he would need to be transported to King County or the Tri-Cities area for the procedure. He wondered if he would have survived that trip.

“Regional’s closing is a huge loss to the people who live within 50 to 60 miles of Yakima,” he wrote. “And don’t for a minute minimize the loss of the doctors and professional staff who worked at Regional. They are irreplaceable.”

Former patient Kristen Fork said the hospital’s closing was a “massive, sad mistake.” Fork said she had been a patient at Astria at least three times and had always been seen quickly by a physician.

“The doctors and staff there were so compassionate and dedicated,” she wrote. “They made me feel safe and well tended-to. They treated me as though they knew me as a friend or neighbor.”

Fork said her other options for hospitals were “just too crowded, too slow, and understaffed.”

“That puts more stress on the staff and reflects in their treatment of the patient,” Fork wrote. “Losing this important health care facility in a city this size is just wrong.”

Virginia Mason Memorial

Regional’s closure leaves Yakima with one hospital — Virginia Mason Memorial, which is working to add services and expand its emergency department. Memorial CEO Russ Myers issued a written statement Thursday in response to concerns from former Astria Regional Medical Center patients.

“The number of patients in both the hospital and in our emergency department have been at lower-than-anticipated levels over the past few days,” Myers wrote. “We have been closely monitoring patient volumes at the hospital, including the emergency department and at our primary care offices, and adjusting staffing levels as appropriate.”

Myers also said that hospital is increasing staffing.

“We have a highly dedicated team of staff and professionals ready to care for patients,” he wrote. “We also are in the process of interviewing and hiring additional health care professionals formerly employed by Astria to assure continuity of care for our community. Our focus is on the support and care of patients. We can assure you that we are prepared to serve our community.”

Memorial officials previously said they were in contact with Astria Health and had a plan to absorb additional patients, in part by adding eight emergency beds. The hospital also expanded its critical care department within in the last year.

More recently, it also received a Certificate of Need from the state Department of Health for percutaneous coronary intervention, a heart procedure, on an elective basis. To get the certificate, Memorial made a transfer arrangement with Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland. The hospital said it can also set up a mobile catheterization lab to provide additional cardiac care.

Good memories

Yates’ husband, who died about three years ago, also received care at Regional. She said Astria staff helped both of them with painful and frightening experiences, and even turned some of those experiences into good memories.

Yates said she and her husband had to celebrate one of their anniversaries at Regional, where Yates was hospitalized. She said the director of nursing took a picture of the couple and gave them a framed print as a gift. The hospital also provided coffee and cookies and had the other nurses stop in to wish them a happy anniversary.

“Where would you go to find that kind of care in a hospital?” she asked. “Personal care means a whole lot. It makes you feel confident and secure. The care at Astria was always phenomenal.”

Like several other patients who shared their stories, Yates has questions about the financial management that led to the Regional hospital’s closing.

“If I had a million dollars, I would buy it,” she said. “I would buy it so that those diligent workers who care about us would have a job.”

Reporter Mai Hoang contributed to this story.

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.