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When patients are discharged from Erlanger hospital, sometimes they have little to wear.

Some are indigent. Others are trauma patients who have had their clothes cut away in the emergency room.

For a time, the only solution was to outfit these departing patients with paper scrubs, hospital officials say.

"That's definitely not a good option, but it was better than no option," said Pam Gordon, Erlanger vice president for patient safety and quality. "Imagine it's in the middle of December, and you're going back to the street [with paper clothes]."

It took a recent encounter with a patient for Gordon to grasp the full magnitude of the problem.

One weekend when she was the administrator on call at the hospital, a flurry of staff emails flagged a problem with a soon-to-be-discharged patient who had no clothes to wear out the door.

"They were trying to find pants and shoes and socks for a person who was going to be discharged," Gordon remembered. "This was a homeless person who had been hit by a car, so a trauma patient. Whatever he had on had to be cut off because of the trauma."

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Mark Kennedy

Gordon flew into action.

"I'm going to Walmart. I'll get what you need," she answered in an email.

Troubled by the ongoing situation, employees at the hospital have hit on a solution: a stock of staff-donated new clothing kept in what some are calling the "compassion closet."

Health regulations on infection prevention complicate the situation. Used clothes are generally not an option for discharged patients. So, the solution was not as easy as seeking donations of used clothing.

"We want everyone to feel like a VIP, even our homeless population," Gordon said. "We are going to focus on new (clothing) items and make the patients feel like they are special and important."

In late 2018, Gordon decided to bring together a group of Erlanger employees who were concerned about the problem.

"We have very loving, caring people who work here," Gordon said of the Erlanger staff. "A room full of people showed up."

A decision was made to search for a storage area at Erlanger that could be converted into the compassion closet. The hospital staff found a space formerly used to store paint and other supplies. The room was cleared out, a sink removed, and stainless steel shelving installed.

The effort was seeded with a $1,000 clothing donation from the Hamilton Group, a Signal Mountain real estate company, said Jed Mescon, Erlanger's vice president for public relations and marketing. Soon, the room began to fill with sweatpants, T-shirts and house shoes. An Erlanger physician, Dr. L. Curtis Cary, donated a cart full of brand new sneakers he purchased at Target, Gordon said.

While the compassion closet is still a work in progress, the fruits of the effort are already clear. Gordon said she gets about 20 emails a week from staff members who want to donate clothing.

Just last week, a call went out to find clothes for a male ER patient.

"I took him some pants, a T-shirt, a sweatshirt and a pair of shoes," Gordon said. "He said, 'Do I need to bring these back? I don't have any money to pay for these. How are you giving me these?'

"I want to tell you, I cried all the way back to my desk. It was so touching and he was so grateful. I told him, 'Erlanger cares about you. We care about making you well, but we also care that you are warm and you're dry when you go back where you live.' ... It's just the right thing to do."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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