Tia Lynn Ivey
A Madison man with a severe case of COVID-19 was transferred out of state—all the way to a hospital in Columbia, S.C.—during the wee hours of the night on Aug. 6 due to ICU bed shortages across Georgia at the time.
Tony Atwater, 53, is currently on a ventilator fighting for his life more than 150 miles away from his family and home in Madison.
According to his wife, Felicia Atwater, Tony was admitted to Morgan Medical Center in Madison for the second time on Aug. 5, ill with COVID-19, the highly contagious and potentially lethal upper-respiratory coronavirus. According to Felicia, when hospital officials determined he needed critical care, they began calling around to Georgia hospitals with ICUs to transfer him.
“But there were no ICU beds available at the time at nearby hospitals or any of the hospitals in Georgia that they called,” explained Felicia.
Felicia was shocked to learn her husband would be transported via ambulance to a hospital two-and-half hours away.
“When they told me he was going to South Carolina, I couldn’t believe it,” said Felicia. “They said it was either going to have to be South Carolina or Florida. So South Carolina was closer.”
Due to HIPAA laws, Morgan Medical Center could not comment on the circumstances of Atwater’s specific case. But Megan Morris, director of communications and public relations for the hospital, explained the larger context of the hospital’s procedure when transferring patients to another hospital to receive critical care.
Morris noted that while Morgan Medical Center does not have an ICU, they currently have 10 open beds (out of 25) and hospital staff has the technology and training to handle critical care patients when necessary, but transfer critical patients when a higher level of care is more beneficial to the patient. According to Morris, patients have not been “turned away” by nearby hospitals in Athens, Augusta, or other parts of the state.
“We have had situations where all ICU beds at a particular hospital are full and they are therefore unable to safely take the patient,” explained Morris, who noted the occupancy of ICU beds can change by the hour. “In this case, our staff is responsible for stabilizing, monitoring, and caring for the patient until we can locate a facility with a critical care bed available.”
Georgia’s Region E zone for hospitals, which includes Madison and Athens, had a total of nine available ICU beds available as on Monday, Aug. 18, according the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA). Region E had a total of 56 Emergency room beds available and 131 general inpatient beds available for the same day. But as Morris pointed out, those numbers can change hourly.
Morris explained that it is rare to have transfer patients outside of Athens. However, Georgia hospitals temporarily filling up ICU wards is on the upswing as a surge of COVID-related hospitalizations sprung up in recent weeks.
“Although it’s not common, this does sometimes mean a patient has to be transported outside of our typical referral pattern of Athens. We have a vast partnership network and continue to reach out to qualified facilities until we can find one that has the capacity to take the patient safely at that time,” said Morris. “Bed availability fluctuates hourly and is therefore something we monitor closely throughout the day. For example, at 10 a.m. a hospital may not have an ICU bed available but by noon they do. While it is our goal to keep patients as close to home as possible, in the interest of patient safety we cannot delay transport hoping that a closer bed will open.”
According to Felicia Atwater, this was the situation for her husband. No nearby ICU beds were available, so he was transferred to a hospital in Columbia, South Carolina where he remains as of press time on Tuesday, Aug. 18
After nearly two weeks of hospitalization in another state, Felicia is hopeful that her husband will recover but saddened she and the rest of the family cannot be with him.
“It’s just hard. On one hand, we want him to have the best healthcare available to him, but we also want to be with him and talk to him, but we just cannot do that,” said Felicia. “Even if he were at a hospital closer to home, we still would not be able to visit him or be with because he has COVID. And when you are sick like this, you don’t want to be alone. You don’t want to just hear the voices of your family, you want to them there with you.”
Felicia is thankful for the outpouring of love and support from family, friends, and community members.
“We are so grateful for all the people praying for him and we ask that people keep praying for a full recovery for Tony,” said Felicia. “Tony is a kind, humble spirit. He is not a stranger to anybody. Everybody knows and loves Tony. If they meet him, they love him. We just want him to come home and have a good quality of life.
Tony and Felicia have been married for 10 years. Tony has three children and three grandchildren. Felicia hopes the community will be vigilant in taking precautions during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is serious stuff,” said Felicia. “I hope people will take it seriously and keep doing what needs to be done to stay safe—hand washing, wearing mask, sanitizing your house. We have to take precautions to stay safe, not only for our own health but for the health of others.”