Hospital closure in Eau Claire has crushed staff's 'hopes and dreams' - TAI News
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A week after Hospital Sisters Health System announced on Jan. 22 that it would be closing Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire, nurse Brittany Sheldon went to work — applying to other jobs.

“I just went crazy and I was applying to jobs left and right, because I knew that there were 1,400 other people that were going to be trying to get the same job,” she said.

Over the next few weeks Sheldon applied to roughly 40 jobs in the Eau Claire area, hoping she wouldn’t have to move, and received more rejections than offers. During one week she had 2-3 interviews a day. But no luck. By the end of February the anxiety started to kick in.

Sacred Heart officially closed its doors on March 22, along with St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chippewa Falls, nearly a month earlier than first stated. Nineteen clinics owned by Prevea Health are also closing, all for financial reasons, leaving the Chippewa Valley community and the health system’s employees reeling.

Sheldon had hoped to start a family in Eau Claire over the next few years. Originally from Milton, she moved to Eau Claire to be closer to her parents, who had moved to northern Wisconsin. The city felt like an idyllic place.

“I love Eau Claire. I mean, it’s the perfect little white-picket-fence-type community to raise kids in, you know, all of that stuff. But not anymore,” she said.

“My hopes and dreams about Eau Claire very quickly dissipated,” she said.

Sheldon and her husband decided to move to Rockford, Illinois, where they have family and hoped the job market might be better. She hadn’t even left the parking lot of UW Health SwedishAmerican Hospital in Rockford when they offered her a job as a post-anesthesia care unit nurse, the same position she held at Sacred Heart.

Moving to Illinois isn’t their first choice, she said, but on top of struggling to find work, she was also nervous about starting a family when Eau Claire’s health care system had become so fragile. “I feel like I just went into survival mode. You have to think about what is best for your family and what your future goals are, and that just got stripped out from underneath us,” she said.

Many of Sheldon’s former colleagues are also leaving the area to find work, she said, moving to Rochester, Minneapolis or Madison, or taking traveling nursing positions. Others have taken jobs they don’t necessarily like just to stay in the Eau Claire area. Sheldon’s chiropractor told her she was their ninth client that was moving out of the area because of the hospital closing.

“Every person that you bump into, everybody knows about the hospital,” she said. “This is humongous. This isn’t just a big employer exiting the area … but it’s also a hospital where people within an hour radius at least came to get their health care.”

More than 300 patients who were receiving treatment at Sacred Heart’s cancer center are now being forced to find treatment elsewhere, traveling as close as Rice Lake and as far as Milwaukee, according to Lee Caraher, a spokesperson for OakLeaf Medical Network, a network of independent physicians and clinics in western Wisconsin. Dialysis patients are also having to travel several times a week for treatment. And there won’t be capacity in the community to provide obstetrical services for a projected 300 births because of the closures, she said.

Shortly after the closures were announced, OakLeaf reached out to HSHS asking to negotiate a purchase of the two hospitals. But HSHS never responded, Caraher said. The buildings have now been gutted and are for sale.

OakLeaf has since taken over four former Prevea clinic locations in Ladysmith, Cornell, Rice Lake and Menomonie, and expects to open them in May. 

Other health groups have ramped up capacity to fill the gaps in care left by the closures, too. Marshfield Medical Center said it plans to more than double the number of beds in its labor and delivery department in Eau Claire. Mayo Clinic also hopes to expand capacity at its locations in the region, including expanding its birthing capacity and offering more virtual care. The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has expanded its speech therapy services, which are free at its clinic.

After the closures were announced, the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce launched a recovery task force to brainstorm ideas for improving access to care. The group is still meeting, and Caraher said ideas include opening a new cancer center or an independent hospital.

Meanwhile, Sheldon is preparing to move to Rockford at the beginning of May.

“Despite all of the darkness around everything that’s happened,” she said, “there are a lot of positive things for us in this. Being closer to family, getting back into UW Health. We found a house with an acre fenced-in yard for the dogs. We’re just happy. Excited.”

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