“This concerns a possible violation of patients’ rights,” it began.
A new director has enforced strict rules, the letter said. Smoking is allowed only at designated times, in one designated place, for a designated duration.
Moreover, patients buy cigarettes but staff locks them up. Staff doles them out only at specific times; patients can’t have their own lighters or matches. Sort of a Cigarette Nazi thing.
“The patient must wait until the staff light their cigarettes,” the letter said. “The patients must also wear protective bibs.”
The letter objected, “In the past, smoking a cigarette with a friend was a positive social experience. This has now become a regimented and demeaning experience.”
The letter concluded, “Smoking is one of the few pleasures left for all of us. Is there something you can do about this violation of our rights as human beings?”
The bottom third of the letter was covered with the signatures of aged hands.
I’m strongly anti-smoking. But the line “smoking is one of the few pleasures left for all of us” hooked me. Soon I was at Hampton Care Center, in the office of manager Josh Hedger.
“We are the most regulated industry in the country,” Hedger said. “Because we are dealing with peoples’ lives. It used to be the nuclear industry, now it’s us.”
A skilled-nursing facility is for patients who are very ill, some feeble, some suffering dementia. They need 24-hour care.
“There are residents that are not safe to smoke on their own,” Hedger said. “If we have even one resident unsafe to smoke on their own, we put the other 119 at risk.”
Patients in similar facilities have lit up near oxygen and died from burns, Hedger said. “It’s not uncommon in our industry.”
Hedger said he would be as flexible as he could.
Next I met the head of the “resident council,” Lawrence Paulo, a wheelchair-bound amputee.
“There are some old people here who shouldn’t be smoking by themselves,” Paulo said. “There actually is a danger they’ll burn themselves.”
But the policy goes overboard, Paulo said. Patients aren’t even allowed to take their smokes with them when the go off-site with families, he said.
Wheeling, Paulo led me to an open-air courtyard. A 15-minute smoking session was in progress. Staffers wheeled a dozen or so patients into place. They lit their cigarettes. The patients wore the “bibs,” actually fireproof smoking aprons.
I asked one woman what she wanted to say.
“That we’re adults,” said Debra Pollard. “We’re the new face of convalescence. We’re baby boomers who have come of age and convalescence with most of our faculties.”
“We’re not in jail,” piped up a nearby man, Richard Castle. “We’re sick.”
Chimed in Phillip Johnson: “We’re grown-ups and they treat us like we’re 10 or 12 or something. They treat us like teenagers who don’t have good sense.”
Back in the newsroom, I called the parent company, Windsor Healthcare Management of West Hollywood.
“The policy is a compromise from being smoke-free,” said Ken Sess, Windsor’s regional director of operations. “As you know, many hospitals have smoke-free campuses. You can’t smoke anywhere the grounds.
“We are,” Sess added pointedly, “a health care facility.”
Yes, that. What the smokers see as a rights issue, administrators see as a health issue. And a safety issue.