Residents cope with unwanted attention

Legionnaires' disease puts Havre de Grace, hospital in spotlight

July 14, 1999|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Havre de Grace rests like a jewel on the shores of the Susquehanna River, a town of 12,000 where antiques shops and an ice cream parlor share space with restaurants. It is not unusual to spot a neighbor biking down to the marina to walk the wooden promenade or feed the ducks.

At the heart of the town is Harford Memorial Hospital, an 85-year-old institution in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood.

"It's a community hospital," Havre de Grace City Manager Mary Ann Lisanti said of the hospital, the town's largest employer and one of the largest in Harford County. "Everyone knows someone who either works there or is connected to the hospital in some way."

So when the news broke about a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the hospital that has killed three and sickened at least two others, many residents were stunned. Some -- including the family of one person who died -- have criticized the hospital's response.

Yet, more than a week after the outbreak was made public, many Havre de Grace residents are drawing on their sense of community to cope with the intense attention.

"This whole thing didn't cause us to panic or anything," said Sheri Lyn Robbins, who moved to Havre de Grace with her husband last year. "It's just sad that something like this had to happen here, because the town is really starting to come alive with the arts and the promenade. It's wonderful here."

Still, the Legionnaires' outbreak has shaken many in the community, even though the hospital heat-treated and disinfected its water system, which has been tentatively identified as the source of the Legionnella bacteria.

Rumors swirled about who might have died, and a hospital hot line set up to answer questions about the disease was jammed with calls.

"People were very concerned," said Monica Potter, who works as a nurse's aide at Citizens Care Center, a senior facility that transferred one of the stricken patients to the hospital and which also is being investigated as a possible source of the bacteria.

"This is the only hospital in this part of the county, and if you get sick in Aberdeen or Edgewood, you are going to end up at Harford Memorial."

Three of Margaret Mahoney's five children were born there, and it's the place she took her 15-year-old daughter last year after she sprained her arm.

"It's our hospital," Mahoney said yesterday as she picnicked with her children in Tydings Memorial Park, just blocks from Harford Memorial. "They are really there for the community."

The hospital sponsors several yearly events to promote healthy living in the community, including a recent "celebrity" marathon. City officials say that when they put the call out to raise $1 million for a community center, Upper Chesapeake Health Systems Inc., which owns the hospital, was the first business to come forward with a check for $15,000.

That type of outreach has generated support in the community in the midst of the outbreak.

"I think most people probably feel like I do that this is something that just happens," Ladonna Baldwin said yesterday as she watched her grandson play in the park.

"We've been paying attention to the information the hospital has put out telling you what to look for and how to know if you have it."

Not everyone has confidence in the hospital. The family of Elizabeth M. Cox has complained that officials did not tell them until after Cox died on July 6 that she had the disease. Others say the hospital waited too long to sound the alarm.

"I would not go to get blood work done until somebody credible outside of the hospital tells me that it's safe in there," said former Harford County Councilman Mitch Shank. "I should have had it done about a week ago, and I just haven't gone."

Mayor Philip J. Barker said he has been in daily contact with hospital officials who have been educating him about how common the Legionella bacteria is to everyday life. Barker said that while his sympathies rest with the families who have lost loved ones, he is confident that hospital officials have handled the situation to the best of their ability.

"They have satisfied me that they are following the protocol that has been put forth for them by the state," Barker said. "As a mayor, I would like to see this end and out of the news so that people not think of Havre de Grace as `the place with Legionnaires' disease.' "

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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