Innai, Zakiya and Ruhai Pettiway’s father was stabbed in the back and chest Saturday, but his children could not visit him because they were under the age of 18.
The Duke University Health System recently changed its visitor policy so that only immediate adult family members and designated caregivers are allowed to see patients. The restriction, which raises the minimum age of visitors from 13 to 18, aims to limit the spread of the H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu.
Like the seasonal influenza virus, swine flu is spread from close contact with infected individuals when they cough or sneeze. A person can also be infected if he or she touches something that has the virus and then touches his nose or mouth. An infected person may spread the virus from one day before symptoms appear to a week afterward.
Tammy Outlaw, the Pettiways’ mother, said she understands the policy aims to protect patients and visitors from swine flu, but she also believes that kids with parents in the Intensive Care Unit or the Step Down Unit should be allowed to visit “so kids can sleep at night knowing their parents are okay.”
The Step Down Unit admits patients who are ill enough to be moved off of the general medical and surgical floor but not so ill as to be admitted into the ICU.
Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an attending physician in the division of infectious diseases at the School of Medicine, said he sympathizes with Outlaw’s frustration. Even though there have been no official complaints about the policy as of Monday afternoon, Wolfe said he believes that in cases where the patient is in critical condition, children of that patient may be allowed to visit. Wolfe added that the staff in each hospital unit has the autonomy to allow flexibility in the visitor policy for special cases.
Wolfe said the hospital would consider removing the policy “if we clearly see the number of cases dropping off,” but noted that, as of now, it is impossible to give an estimate of when that might occur.
He noted that the hospital admits about 15 to 20 cases of swine flu a day, some of which are referrals from other regional hospitals. In addition, Duke’s clinics and Emergency Department treat other infected patients who are not ill enough to be admitted. Wolfe noted that young children and pregnant women are especially susceptible to swine flu, though it is unclear why the former group is at risk.
One reason may be that they are less likely to have run into similar viruses before, Wolfe said.
On the other hand, those older than 65, who used to be identified as high risk, are at lower risk of contracting swine flu. This may be because older people were exposed to a similar flu virus in the 1970s and therefore have more immunity, Wolfe said.
But for the most part, swine flu is “not dissimilar to any regular flu,” he said, noting that most people recover without medical care.
Robin Gaines, a health unit coordinator for the Step Down Unit, said she has had to deal with a lot of anger stemming from the policy.
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The Pettiway children, who had been sitting in the waiting room for an hour, said they were mad they could not see their father. Their mother is the only family member who has been allowed to visit him.
Conspicuous stop signs are posted on the outdoor hospital walkway, the lobby, the elevator and the entrance of each floor. Visitors below the age limit are restricted to the lobby and not supposed to come up to the floors, but “they’re doing it anyway,” Gaines said.
Although most visitors understand the policy, others ignore it, Gaines said.
“Even though they’ve seen the reports on TV… they still feel like it’s okay [for their kids to visit] if the sick person is a mother or a grandparent,” she said.
Bert Collins said his brother, who has diabetes, has come to Duke Hospital three times in the past in hopes of getting a transplant and finally underwent surgery Thursday to replace his liver, pancreas and kidney.
But Collins said his 11 and 12-year-old nephews have not seen their father since. He said his brother’s family understands the reason behind the policy, but “it’s been hard on the kids… they talk to him on the phone.”