Sweltering at Springfield Hospital

July 21, 1994

For the 65 mentally ill patients who occupy the McKeldin Building at the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville, there has been little escape from the oppressive heat and humidity of the past two months. Most of this old one-story building has no air conditioning and the patients have no choice but to swelter.

The staff members who work with the patients also suffer in the building. But they readily acknowledge that, unlike the patients, they can retreat to their air-conditioned cars that carry them to their air-conditioned homes. Virtually the entire staff that deals with these patients is upset over these deplorable conditions and the effect on the patients.

As a result of the heat, most patients reduce their physical activity and don't venture outdoors. They spend their time sleeping or watching endless hours of television in day rooms, the only air-conditioned refuges in their building.

They cut back on therapeutic activities that involve physical exertion. Instead of working out in the stifling gymnasium, the patients -- some of whom need exercise to curtail aggressive behaviors -- play quiet board games instead.

The state of Maryland has budgeted money this fiscal year to design an air conditioning system, but installation of central air at Springfield is at least two years away. Considering that the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is exploring the possibility of closing the mental institution, there is an excuse to delay any decision regarding air conditioning.

It would make fiscal sense not to spend the $500,000 of taxpayers' money to air-condition the building, particularly if it will be used for only a few more years. But a decision to do nothing would be terribly unfair to these patients, many of whom are long-term residents and have little hope of being discharged. Moreover, because of their illnesses, they are incapable of making a case for their own comfort. That puts a heavier burden on the state to make sure they do not suffer.

In a society that readily provides air-conditioning for animal shelters, the state should be able to find ways to provide some interim relief for these patients. Planting more trees around the building, installing window units in some rooms, maybe even installing an above-ground swimming pool would be low-cost solutions. There is no excuse for a situation in which vulnerable patients are left to spend their summer in oven-like conditions.

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