Providing Hope to a Community — of Inmates

“I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matt. 25:36).

One day in the Tillamook County Jail on the Oregon coast, an inmate was having a seizure in his bunk bed. His cellmates pulled him from the bed and began performing CPR. The jail’s medical team rushed to the cell and resuscitated him before the ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital.

If the medical staff hadn’t been there to help this inmate, he would have died.

When we think of health care, we might think of services performed in hospitals, clinics and medical offices. But do we ever consider how medical care is performed in jails?

The Tillamook County Jail is small — with a 96-bed capacity, it serves the county’s population of about 25,000. At 11 p.m. on a Thursday night in 2015, Eric Swanson, executive director for strategy and development at Adventist Health Tillamook, received a text message from the jail commander: Call me first thing in the morning.

“We’ve lost our last nurse,” the jail commander said when Swanson called the next morning.

Swanson understood the full weight of this sentence. In addition to his role at Adventist Health Tillamook, he is a paramedic and a reserve deputy with the sheriff’s office — a role he has held for 29 years. He knew the jail needed medical staff to maintain their accreditation, so he turned to Gina Seufert, vice president of physician and clinic services, to come up with an official game plan.

“Gina and I were on the same page right away,” Swanson says. “The sheriff’s office is an important community partner to us — and it was the right thing to do.” After getting the thumbs-up from David Butler, Adventist Health Tillamook president, Eric began performing medical care in the jail the same day and then created a plan for the hospital to be the official “clinic” in the jail. Seufert recruited a team of “superstar” paramedics, medical assistants, EMTs and a full-time nurse to join the efforts.

The on-site clinic operates much like other Adventist Health facilities: It provides the same level of quality care to patients and believes in the power of whole-person health. It has medical staff onsite 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and staff are always on call for emergencies. The only difference is that these patients are in handcuffs.

Adventist Health’s "superstar" team not only provides top-notch care to their patients in the jail, they view it as their own personal ministry. Larry Hamilton, who has been a nurse for Adventist Health for nearly 34 years, is one of those people. Hamilton is a lay minister and a skilled missionary nurse who seized this opportunity to put his skills to use. “Larry is truly living our mission every day — through the care he provides, Larry is inspiring health, wholeness and hope,” Swanson says.

The inmates are often surprised at the level of compassion they receive from the new medical team. Once, while providing care to an inmate with a history of frequent visits to the jail, Swanson says the inmate turned to him and said, “What’s going on here? This medical care is completely different” — to which Swanson responded, “Well, I’m from Adventist Health. We really care about you as a person. We want to give you the very best care.”

Featured in: April 2018


Judy Leach

Adventist Health Pacific Northwest Region vice president of strategy activation and communication