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Sunday, June 18, 2023

Thank you South County Hospital for saving my life

Now I understand why they get such high rankings

By Will Collette

I’ve been a fan of South County Hospital going back fifty years to the late Donald Ford, the hospital's long-time CEO. I was proud to consider a friend and mentor. For the second time in 20 years, I was an inpatient at SCH with a life-threatening ailment.

The most recent hospitalization started with a classic flu-like illness. Despite having gotten my annual flu shot, I was able to check off nearly every box on the Mayo Clinic’s list of flu symptoms. After a couple of weeks, it got worse. A wracking cough, intermittent fever and debilitating fatigue knocked me on my ass. But I thought I could tough it out helped by CVS’s strongest over-the-counter cough syrup.


My wife Cathy knew I was bad off and began to push me to go get help. After some resistance, one morning, I just knew that I was well past my ability to ride this out.

I went to South County Hospital’s Westerly annex on Route 1 and got quickly taken into their Express Care unit. After checking me out, they took an Xray whereupon I heard some of the most dreaded words any patient can hear: “you have a mass on your right lung.”

Dr. Jill Volk told me gently but firmly that I needed to be hospitalized. She said the top suspects were (a) an abscess, (b) tuberculosis and (c) cancer. At that point, I didn’t need much convincing. After a quick stop at home to talk to Cathy, Donna Walsh drove me to the hospital (thank you, Donna) where the emergency room was ready to take me in immediately.

They did a boatload of blood tests and a CAT scan that confirmed the “mass in the lung” part. They quizzed me on my exotic travels to see if I had visited places that had a lot of TB and other infectious diseases. Of course, I did but none in the past twenty years. Still, there was a slim chance that I had been carrying something that lay dormant but could have been activated by the flu.

As I was about to transition from the ER to inpatient, hospitalist Dr. Sal Abbruzzese sat with me and told me candidly that the odds of my illness being TB or cancer were very slim. After looking at the images, he called it a “cavitating lesion” almost certainly caused by a bacterial infection. By that time, they had begun giving me IV antibiotics.

Dr. Sal said that while it was bad, it could be completely resolved with IV antibiotics and that he was admitting me. I waited until after I was discharged before Googling how dangerous this thing was. I’m glad I waited because, untreated, gangrene and sepsis were in store for me.

When they brought me upstairs to Frost 2 (telemetry), my room was an isolation unit. I called it the “plague room” and asked if the last occupant went out in a body bag (didn’t).

It was private, quiet, with a negative air flow that made a perfect white noise for pleasant sleeping. There was an airlock for staff to suit up in full PPE before coming in. They were pumping me with saline and IV antibiotics and generally taking very good care of me.

I woke up that first morning feeling better and grateful to Cathy for nagging me to go get help.

Then over the remaining three days of my hospital stay, I came to really appreciate all those high ratings SCH has earned over the years. The nurses and treatment staff were really great – kind, attentive, and consummate professionals.

I hacked up three sputum samples for the state lab to check for tuberculosis. Those have been slow to come back, but the first sample was clear, confirming the consensus that I did not have TB. The results for the other two must come back clear for it to be official.

The antibiotics were knocking down the infection, getting my white cell count down to normal and dramatically improving my breathing. I was able to sleep soundly in my single isolation room with the blissful white noise from the negative air pressure. I also enjoyed some shockingly good hospital cooking (more on that below).

I had a couple of visits with infectious disease specialist Dr. Brian Cilley who was pleased with my progress.

While blood tests findings still hadn't identified what bacterial organism was responsible, the official diagnosis ended up being pneumonia. Obviously the IV antibiotics were working, enough that he felt confident about discharging me a day earlier than originally scheduled and going with oral antibiotics, rather than outpatient IVs. Plus, I felt so much better.

I did hold some lingering resentment about catching the flu despite the flu shot and pneumonia despite being vaccinated for that. I found out later from CVS that my last pneumonia shot was in 2014 so I really needed a new one. Despite my experience, I remain a diehard pro-vaxxer.

So, after four days of great treatment, I was able to go home without having to struggle to breathe. I have been recovering well and hope to have that confirmed when I see Dr. Cilley in a few days, followed by another CAT scan.

Beyond a doubt, the SCH team, ranging from Express Care to the ER to the staff of the Frost 2 unit, were primarily responsible for saving my life.

But before ending my little medical travelogue, I want to tell you about the food. It’s a cliché that hospital food is terrible. At South County Hospital, the food far exceeded my expectations. Though they can’t match Charlestown’s Sly Fox Den Too, they served me some dishes that were excellent.

I spoke with the dietician at least once a day where I gave her a review of the earlier meal and ordered the next. The meals were crafted to fit my needs as a diabetic and as an ill patient who needed to regain strength (I had lost 15 pounds over the previous month). I also got menu tips from the ward staff.

Breakfasts included such taste treats as nice, scrambled eggs, tasty French toast and, on the last morning, an excellent spinach, mushroom and Swiss cheese omelet. Usually there was fresh fruit, twice in the form of a cup of perfect plump fresh blueberries.

Lunches and dinners featured cooked from scratch soups, including an excellent clam chowder. The entrees were also cooked with care with nice sauces. One standout was poached salmon. A couple of nights, I had sugar-free lemon Italian ice (made by Hood) that was surprisingly delicious.

None of the good things I experienced during my stay in South County Hospital were accidents. They are Rhode Island’s last free-standing independent hospital, the only one not gobbled up by some corporate chain. They work hard to earn those high rankings they regularly receive from the various rating services. 

I don’t know how much my poor condition on admission or my natural charm had to do with the great way the staff treated me. I’d like to think everyone gets the same treatment and I truly believe they do.

What I can say with certainty is that, aside from being sick, it was a great experience. I feel a great debt to everyone I met and thank them all.