Garrison Foster Health Center faces criticism from students

By Sonia Lachter

In recent months, critiques of the Health Center have been reported by students in the Civil Discourse section of ColbyNow. From forced quarantines to incorrect prescriptions, the experiences recounted by students on the electronic platform have circulated throughout campus and reached hundreds.

Juniors Parker* and Bill* were among those who described an interaction with the Health Center in a recent installation of ColbyNow. Parker recounted that the Friday before Fall Break on Oct. 12, 2018, they noticed a sinus infection developing and decided to go to Garrison-Foster. “If I’m being honest I was really worried about going in to see someone about my sinus infection because I had heard bad stories and I was very worried I wasn’t going to get the antibiotic in the first place,” Parker said in a recent interview with the Echo, “because I was worried they would misdiagnose me or think that it wasn’t really a problem and not get me the medication I needed.”

Nevertheless, Parker was prescribed the antibiotic they needed, and left for Winslow pharmacy to pick it up the next day with their friend, Bill. Once they arrived there, however, Parker discovered that the pharmacy had not received the prescription. They later learned that Winslow Pharmacy had called the Health Center nearly 15 times, to no avail: Garrison Foster was closed for the weekend, in observance of Fall Break.

“They didn’t really alert anyone,” Parker said, referencing the closure of the Center.

On the last day of break, Parker received an email from the nurse-practitioner at Garrison-Foster who had prescribed the antibiotic, apologizing for the entire incident. “She [the nurse practitioner] realized that the prescription had not sent and she told me that she had made a typing error which is why it did not go in,” Parker said. “And so she apologized for that and then she said that the Health Center had a meeting to discuss how to better advertise when the Health Center is going to be closed.”

Now-sophomore Deandra* recounted how in late August of 2017, as she prepared for her first year of college, she received a startling message regarding first-year orientation.

“The Health Center sent me an email saying ‘you need to come in for an examination before you go on COOT [Colby Outdoor Orientation Trip] because your BMI [Body Mass Index] is low,’” she said in a recent interview with the Echo.

The student, who has a naturally quick metabolism and slim build, immediately scheduled an appointment, hoping to clear up any confusion regarding her weight and move on from the problem entirely. Instead, she found herself locked in an argument.

“[A nurse at the Health Center explained to me that] ‘it’s our policy to monitor people that have BMI that’s lower than a certain number,” Deandra described. “[The nurse said their policy mandates that] ‘you have to see the dietician,’ so I started seeing the dietician and they made me go every week to weigh in with her and tell her about everything that I was eating.”

Deandra was later told that if she lost any more weight the Health Center would intervene. “It was really unclear what an intervention would entail but basically…it felt very threatening.”

Following this development, the student had her growth charts sent to the Health Center from her home doctor, because as she put it, “my weight at that point was totally normal for me, my doctor has never been worried about it.”

The Health Center and Deandra’s home doctor continued to be in communication, and Deandra recounted that “they talked to my doctor on the phone, they looked at my growth charts, and they continued to make me come every week to weigh in to the point where I was really concerned about my weight where I never had been before.”

In a recent email interview with the Echo, Garrison-Foster Health Center Head Nurse Judy Whyte explained the Center’s general policy regarding conflicting diagnosis. “I would say that a primary care provider may advocate for their patients in ways that are not possible — immunizations and communicable diseases come to mind,” Whyte said. Ultimately, however, they will follow blanket protocol for issues of this nature over that of the home. “We are guided by governmental agencies on how we must handle certain things which may be in conflict with what a home provider may suggest.”

Health Center Medical Director Dr. Paul Berkner, DO, reiterated this sentiment in a recent interview with the Echo. “We have exactly four years [with the students]. And…we’re really a transition for students from their primary care doctor that they were growing up with to an adult healthcare model and so that transition is probably the thing that we have the hardest time managing.”

Nevertheless, Deandra’s experience was not isolated, and over the course of the past several semesters, several other students have reported incidences of clashing diagnosis between their home providers and the Health Center.

Current junior Mackenzie*, for instance, was affected by the same policy as Deandra preceding her own first year orientation. Mackenzie was contacted about her BMI and was similarly required to attend weekly meetings with the nutritionist for the entirety of her freshman year.

“The day before we left [for COOT] they [the professionals at the Health Center] sent me an email saying that I couldn’t go on this COOT trip because my BMI was too low,” Mackenzie said in a recent interview with the Echo. “So that was super upsetting because I was super pumped.”

Mackenzie was switched to a less strenuous COOT and went to Garrison-Foster for an appointment upon returning to campus. “I had to meet with Nurse Practitioners, and there were some questionable things that she said that rubbed me the wrong way like, ‘we think you have an eating disorder and we think you should be sent home.’”

In addition, Mackenzie reported being told by Health Center professionals that “‘people with your BMI are usually in bed and fed through an IV,’” and, “‘we think you should go to an eating disorder facility and get treatment.’”

Mackenzie said that this experience has affected her entire relationship with the Health Center. “It was frustrating that I didn’t get to speak to them and tell my part of the story,” Mackenzie said. “It makes me kind of uncomfortable when I see people I dealt with, like the Director of the Health Center, who was really nice, but just having to go through that negative experience when I see them on campus…it deters me a little bit to go to the Health Center.”

Deandra similarly felt that her voice was not heard by Health Center professionals, who continued with their initial instinct instead of adapting their plan of action to the circumstances at hand.

“I know that the school has to be careful because they don’t want to be liable if something happens and eating disorders are a real issue with people our age, but… it was entirely black and white, you know ’cause if your BMI is below this number you have to follow all these things.”

Despite recent critiques from students, Berkner praised the work of his employees, bringing to light the fact that Colby has been certified by the Accreditation Association for Health Care for the past 18 years, which “means that… when people from the outside look at us then they can say that…we have a way of documenting that the Health Center is providing the best care possible and are meeting what are called the best practice standards. We’re the only college health service in the state of Maine that is accredited. We’re the only one of our peer institutions [NESCAC member schools] that’s accredited… I give my staff a lot of credit for maintaining that high quality of care.”

Over the years, the Health Center has changed significantly. “When I first came here we had six inpatient beds, we were open 24/7, and we were much more of what I would call an infirmary model, so more like a mini hospital, and we have transitioned over the years more into a primary care office,” Berkner described. “I think we try really hard to improve [our service]. We try to meet students as much as we can, we try to be as available in the community as well as just seeing patients….we’d be willing to listen to other ways to do that.”