UPMC Altoona

Name of Facility: UPMC Altoona

Location of Facility (City, State/Province, Country): Altoona, Pennsylvania, United States

Number of Stars: 3

Description of Experience: I’ve been voluntarily admitted here once and involuntarily committed three times. The intake process usually takes several hours, and the ER receptionist oftentimes doesn’t treat your situation like an actual emergency, so you can end up sitting in the waiting room for quite a while. After having a urine sample and blood samples taken I always had to wait around in a small room that had nothing in it but a TV, a crappy plastic chair, and a surveillance camera. The crisis worker always takes forever to arrive. One time I went in for having suicidal thoughts but by the time she got there the feeling had completely passed and I realized I never actually had any intention of killing myself. She had me involuntarily committed anyway and I spent the next five days in there feeling perfectly fine aside from having my freedom taken away and I haven’t had suicidal thoughts since.

If you’re put on the unit late at night you don’t get to eat a meal, even if you were just in the ER for five hours. You might get something left over from snack time, but that’s it, and breakfast isn’t until 7:30the next morning. The food is hit-or-miss. The selection is good, but the quality is inconsistent. I was impressed with the mashed potatoes and gravy, the turkey, and with the chicken noodle soup. The iced tea is good too. They set out snacks in the activity rooms at 8 p.m. and they just consist of crackers, those gross peanut butter sandwich cookies that no one ever actually eats, and little ice cream and sherbet cups. My mom was allowed to bring me candy (Skittles and Peeps), but it had to be given to nurses, not directly to me, and it was locked up during the day and only allowed out during snack time. The activity rooms are locked up at 11:00, so if you have insomnia expect to experience extra boredom after that.

You’ll get like an hour in the evening after dinner to have visitors, but visitation has to happen in the activity rooms and guests have to be checked with a metal detector paddle before they’ll be allowed in. They can’t bring cell phones in. The only guests allowed are ones you put on your list.

Every morning a nurse will wake you up ridiculously early to take your blood pressure. Your days will be pretty structured, but free time is scheduled in. There are several groups held every day, but they’re all on pretty general topics like medication management, art therapy, etc. It’s not like serious, deep therapy because patients are in and out all the time and have widely varying diagnoses and reasons for being there. If you don’t attend groups they put in your file that you’re not complying with treatment and then they will keep you in there longer (they usually do the same thing if you refuse to take medication). If I remember correctly, the only group that is optional is the spirituality one, which is just a Christian pastor coming in and trying to convert people, which doesn’t seem completely ethical to me.

There are two activity rooms (a.k.a. day rooms), one on each end of the unit. That’s where groups and meals are held. They have some games, xeroxed coloring book pages with crayons and markers, puzzles that pretty much all have at least one missing piece, and a bunch of mostly bland reading material. They also each have a TV in them, and usually in the evenings they show a movie.

I liked all of the staff except the tall dude with the mustache who was ultra Christian and spent the majority of his time trying to convert people to his particular form of the religion. He was a mental health worker, not a guest preacher or anything. It was very inappropriate and obnoxious. I don’t think he works there anymore though because I didn’t see him at all during my last stay. The fact that he was there for a good while in the first place really rubs me the wrong way though.

You’ll have one brief visit with a psychiatrist usually every weekday. There were three different ones and they were all nice and had insightful things to say.

There are mental health workers and nurses who are available to talk to one-on-one throughout the day, and they’re generally all very nice, but in my experience the staff who work after 11 p.m. aren’t interested in talking much because they’re busy monitoring the unit with less help on hand. Usually you’ll meet with a social worker to plan outpatient treatment and arrange any other sort of accommodations that you’ll need when you get out. Like if you’re struggling with addiction they’ll help transfer you to rehab, if you’re poor and need health insurance they’ll help you apply for Medicaid, etc. You can choose to include family in this meeting. You’ll also meet with the occupational therapy nurse, who is very kind-hearted and positive, but in my experience the one-on-one meetings with her are useless. Her groups are much more productive. The custodians were all very polite and pleasant and they do a great job of keeping the unit clean.

It felt pretty safe in there overall. It was never really chaotic or violent when I was there. I never saw staff act aggressively toward patients, even when patients were very agitated or aggressive themselves. The one complaint I have as far as staff respecting patients’ bodily autonomy was that they force you to give blood samples if you refused to in the ER (which I did when I was experiencing paranoid psychosis because “we need to take your blood” sounded horrifying to me at the time and I already hated needles on top of that). If you refuse in the ER they’ll let you refuse one more time after that. Then they force you. Staff will surround you and hold you during this. I remember crying, screaming, and shaking in terror while clinging to one of the nurses when it happened to me.

You’re not allowed to bring in cell phones or any other electronic devices. No regular writing utensils and no spiral-bound notebooks are permitted, but stubby pencils that have no eraser on them are fine. They have boxes of those in the activity rooms too. Tampons have to be locked up in the nurses’ station and when you need one you have to wait around until a nurse is available to give you one. No clothing with strings is allowed (so no shoestrings, drawstrings, etc.).

If you don’t have any clothes with you they’ll provide pants with not-always-great elastic waistbands, brand-new socks, and gowns (they’ll let you wear two, a front one and a back one so your back and butt don’t ever hang out). Some of the gowns have stains on them. They let you keep the socks. They’ll also give you deodorant, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and mouthwash, all of which you get to take with you when you leave. Those things get locked up in the shower rooms and you’re only allowed to have them during shower time and only in the shower rooms. Women who aren’t on suicide watch get to use razors, and they let suicidal women shave too but generally only with supervision. Pretty standard stuff. You’re not allowed to have jewelry and during one of my stays they made me take out my small ear gauges which then grew shut while I was in there.

Patient rooms are plain and cannot be locked, but they’re decent-sized and you get one all to yourself. You’re not allowed to have your door completely closed, and staff comes around regularly to check on you. I think it’s done every 15 minutes. You share a bathroom with the person whose room is next to yours. Thankfully you’re allowed to close the bathroom doors, but they don’t lock, so that’s a bit unnerving. The bathroom mirrors are just a big sheet of metal riveted to the wall and they kind of suck. You’re not allowed to enter the rooms of other patients.

Altoona doesn’t have an adolescent ward so if the nearest one (at Conemaugh Memorial in Johnstown) is full the kids end up in the Altoona adult ward. You’re not really supposed to talk to the kids but people do it anyway and staff often doesn’t care. During one of my stays a 23-year-old male patient started dating a 16-year-old female patient, and they regularly and loudly discussed their intentions to do drugs and get drunk together upon release. They were never hushed or separated, and they sneaked into one of their bathrooms to make out on at least one occasion.

The temperature in the place is usually cold, especially at night, so if you have a chance to pack some clothes or have someone bring some in for you a sweatshirt, hoodie, and/or longsleeved undershirts are a good idea. You should also ask for at least one extra blanket for in your room at night because they’re very thin. Blankets aren’t allowed outside of patient rooms. Requesting an extra pillow is a good idea if you want to be propped up a little better to read comfortably while lying down. You’re allowed to take books into your room. The beds are firm but not overly so.

All in all I would say my experience with this place isn’t really too bad considering how underfunded the hospital is overall. Statistically it’s one of the worst hospitals in the country (Seriously. Google it.) so I was expecting the ward to be terrible. It’s mostly just boring, but the friendliness of the staff helped make up for a lot of the drawbacks. It’s not the worst ward in the area. I would definitely recommend it before I would the ones in Somerset, Johnstown, or Huntingdon.

Type of Program (inpatient, outpatient, residential, etc.): inpatient

Anything that might have impacted your stay? i.e. being LGBTQ+: I’m a butch lesbian and practice a non-Christian minority religion.

Year(s) Your Experience(s) Occurred (i.e. 2015): 2013, 2014, 2016

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