St. Peter’s officials discuss traumatic month, Benefis, changes – Helena Independent Record

St. Peter’s Health officials said in a recent community forum the hospital is coming out of an especially difficult month in dealing with COVID-19 patients. They also mentioned that they are continuing to look for a full-time oncologist and commented on competition coming to town.

Wade Johnson, chief executive officer and president of St. Peter’s, was joined Tuesday by Dr. Todd Wampler during the online forum. They both discussed issues and fielded questions about the hospital.

Wampler, president of the St. Peter’s Health Medical Group, said October was an “exceptionally difficult” period for the hospital.

St. Peter's operating room (copy)

An operating room in St. Peter’s Health hospital.

“It’s been a traumatic month,” he said, noting they have been providing mental health support, group and individual counseling to staff.

“We have tried to wrap them in as much love as possible,” Wampler said.

He said a few weeks ago there was a peak of 44 COVID-19 patients at St. Peter’s, which accounts for over 50% of in-patient beds, and record oxygen use. He said there was a day when usage got so high that they brought in a consultant to see if oxygen tanks were leaking.

“It turns out there wasn’t a leak in the oxygen system, we were really using that much oxygen,” Wampler said.

There were 27 COVID-19 deaths at the hospital during October, the most ever, he said, noting it was also the deadliest month in the state.

He said the number of COVID-19 patients is now in the 30s, but warned it may just be a data point and cannot be called a trend yet.

“On the horizon we do have hope,” he said.

Wampler said operational changes were made to deal with the influx of people. Nurses were moved from clinics to help at the hospital, and some of these nurses stepped up and volunteered for extra shifts.

“People have been pushing themselves to work at the highest level of their credentials,” he said.

He thanked the National Guard for helping the hospital and said there are now 13 members helping at St. Peter’s. They have worked as patient sitters, helping to clean rooms, do laundry and bring meals. 

“They have been so willing to help us out and I have been so proud of them,” Wampler said.

Wampler was also hopeful about new vaccines to help younger people.

He urged people to “please” get vaccinated against COVID-19, adding that people who are vaccinated are less likely to end up in the hospital. Wampler also said people should get a flu shot.

Wampler said urgent care wait times are now posted online and people can register there. He said lab draws can also be done online.

Johnson, toward the end of the nearly hourlong forum, discussed Great Falls-based Benefis Health System’s growing presence in Helena. The health care provider recently opened an urgent care center in town, announced it had just purchased Helena Imaging, which includes two outpatient radiology locations, and is now planning a 60,000-square-foot surgery center and specialty clinic on the former Capital Hill Mall site.

“We are not surprised we have a competitor coming to town,” he said. “Over the past number of years we have been anticipating this will happen as Helena continues to grow. As other markets struggle, perhaps, they look for other opportunities where they can generate income in other communities…”

“We feel very good about where we are and where we’re going and what we’re doing,” Johnson said, noting earlier that every dollar that St. Peter’s generates in Helena goes back into the organization to recruit more providers and get more equipment.

He said the community will have the opportunity to choose where they get their care.

“And we’re going to do everything we can to hopefully be the preferred choice,” he said.

Johnson also talked about a 200-unit senior living retirement community being planned through a joint venture of St. Peter’s Health and Immanuel Living.

He said the project, which includes cottages and long-term nursing care, will take five years to go from start to finish and said construction could begin within a year.

Johnson also noted that St. Peter’s has a partnership with Logan Health, formerly Kalispell Regional, for neurosurgery and spine surgery in Helena.

He said the Cancer Treatment Center at St. Peter’s has undergone remodeling and talked about the hospital’s affiliation with Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah.

Wampler said they are still looking for a permanent oncologist in Helena. He said they have made inroads.

“We have some candidates who are interested, but they are not right for our community,” he said, adding he expected an announcement on other new hires to be made soon.

Johnson thanked the community for the food, drink and words of encouragement they have offered staff during the pandemic.

“Those are the things that make people’s day,” he said, adding later, “Those gestures really really mean a lot.”

Assistant editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.

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