Pubdate: Thu, 19 Jan 2006
Source: Winston-Salem Journal (NC)
Copyright: 2006 Piedmont Publishing Co. Inc.
Note: The Journal does not publish letters from writers outside its 
daily home delivery circulation area.
Author: Monte Mitchell and Mary Shaffrey, Journal Reporters
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)
Bookmark: (Treatment)


Hospitals Reporting Increase in Cases Related to Drug

When an emergency-room patient is the operator of a methamphetamine
lab, medical workers have to decontaminate him, protect other patients
and protect themselves.

"You do it as quickly as possible while also dealing with the medical
things," said Cindy Hinshaw, the director of the emergency
department at Watauga Medical Center. "It's very complicated. It's
also very taxing. It's very, very stressful."

Law-enforcement officials say that meth has put a strain on their
departments, but according to two studies released yesterday, abuse of
the drug is beginning to affect emergency-room operations in some
places as well.

According to surveys conducted by the National Association of
Counties, 73 percent of county and regional hospitals reported an
increase in the number of meth-related cases over the last five years,
and 14 percent of hospitals said that meth-related cases account for up
to 20 percent of all patients. Forty-seven percent of the hospitals
said that meth is the most commonly found drug involved in their drug

The results are based on 200 responses from emergency-room personnel
from hospitals in 39 states, including North Carolina. Eight North
Carolina hospitals participated in the survey. However, none of those
cited meth as their top drug problem.

Jeri Reese, an emergency-room nurse manager in Iowa, said that her
staff is often pulled in different directions when meth cases come

"They are labor-intensive and costly on us," said Reese, who spoke
yesterday at a news conference in Washington.

Reese described numerous instances where meth abusers became violent
toward hospital workers, including one case where an X-ray technician
was attacked.

The baptism of fire for Watauga Medical Center came on a Sunday night
in January 2003, when five firefighters from the Deep Gap Volunteer
Fire Department arrived complaining of respiratory ailments and chest
pains after coming into contact with toxic fumes. Only after the fire
was put out did an-yone realize that the mobile home contained a lab
and all the chemicals needed to manufacture methamphetamine.

"It was a strong slap in the face for us, it was a wake-up call,"
Hinshaw said. It opened people's eyes to clues that they had been
seeing for a while, and the hospital staff began putting them together
like pieces in a puzzle, she said.

"We started seeing more and more suspicious burns with stories that
might have been inconsistent with the injuries," she said. More
patients started self-reporting meth use while filling out medical

The hospital developed a protocol for how to handle patients who had
been exposed to meth manufacturing, especially children. They trained
in decontamination techniques.

If workers suspect that a patient has been exposed to a meth lab, a
nurse puts on a flu-id-resistant suit, and wears a mask, goggles and
rubber boots as the patient is washed with soap and warm water in a
15-minute shower. If there are medical emergencies, those injuries are
treated as the patient is quickly washed down.

Several times, nurses at Watauga Medical Center have had to go
through the decontamination process after being exposed to a patient
who came from a meth lab.

In addition to the human toll, methamphetamines have driven up the
cost of health care in many places, the survey said.

Fifty-six percent of hospitals in the survey reported an increase in
overall costs and expenditures as a result of meth-related cases. But
only one of the eight hospitals surveyed in North Carolina - or 12.5
percent - reported such an increase. The study's authors would not say
which hospitals or counties participated, citing confidentiality.

Meth abuse has been a bigger problem in Western North Carolina, but
experts say that it is moving east and into urban areas.

Many meth users do not have jobs, and therefore do not have insurance.
This creates another problem faced by hospitals, as 83 percent of
those surveyed said that patients involved in meth-related cases are

The need for drug-treatment centers has also increased since meth has
grown in popularity, especially in rural areas, the surveys found.

Nationally, 69 percent of hospital respondents said that there has
been increased need for drug-treatment centers as a result of meth,
and 37 percent said they have had to change their drug-treatment
options because meth problems are different from such drugs as cocaine
or marijuana.

"Treatment is really the answer to what we need to do," said Patrick
Fleming, the director of the Salt Lake County Division of Substance
Abuse Services in Utah, who also spoke yesterday at the Washington
press conference.

His agency is the largest such program between Denver and

Fleming said that treatment programs for women allow them to stay with
their children and cost about $17,000 a year. Putting a woman in jail
and sending her children to foster care costs much more, he said.
Women are more likely than men to use meth, he said.

"Treatment is a much better deal for the taxpayer," he

In Watauga County, where the number of meth-lab seizures has dropped
from 34 cases each in 2003 and 2004 to 16 cases in 2005, medical
workers and law-enforcement officials say they feel like they have
turned a corner.

"Our tide has kind of changed a bit," Hinshaw said.

The majority of cases they see now aren't for exposure to lab
chemicals but for people who use meth. Many ask for help in getting
off the drug. There are a lot of people who do that repeatedly, a
symptom of the drug's stranglehold, she said.

"Meth is just a devil's drug," said Lt. Todd Phillips of the Watauga
County Sheriff's Office. Law-enforcement personnel worked with the
hospital in developing responses to meth.

The reduced number of labs found doesn't mean that hospital emergency
workers can relax.

"I sit there sometimes and think about 'What about the ones who
weren't truthful, that we didn't know about?'" Hinshaw said.

"This has been quite scary for all of us." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake