Life-or-death game of musical chairs? New hospital faces big questions after young man’s suicide

Kevan Carter, Jr. is a name that won’t soon be forgotten at Tacoma’s bright, shiny new psychiatric hospital. Administrators would do well to post a photo of Carter, a talented but troubled young man, in a prominent place at Wellfound Behavioral Health Hospital, both as a reminder of who they should be serving and the enormous cost of failure.

Carter’s suicide on July 23, a few hours after being turned away at the Central Tacoma hospital for the second time in 12 hours, is a confounding tragedy that casts harsh light on a heralded partnership between MultiCare and CHI Franciscan health systems.

The Greek physician Hippocrates is credited with the principle: “First, do no harm.” Anyone who read last weekend’s account of Carter’s death, reported by TNT columnist Matt Driscoll, may wonder if Wellfound officials are living up to that code.

Ever since the 29-year-old Carter stepped in front of a train at Titlow Beach, the list of questions has grown so long, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Why did Wellfound open with a ribbon-cutting and much hoopla three months ago when more than 100 of its 120 beds can’t yet be filled?

Why create a misperception that the hospital is ready for business when it lacks a vital accreditation, which is needed for insurance reimbursements and could take months to secure?

How can Pierce County taxpayers, after contributing millions to the project, feel assured that no more nightmares like the Carter family’s will occur during what Wellfound now calls an “introductory process”?

These and other big-picture questions have emerged in the wake of Carter’s death and his Puyallup family’s struggle to understand it.

Still grieving the son who shares his name, Kevan Carter Sr. posed the biggest question of all in a video interview with the TNT: “Why even open your doors? You’re putting people’s lives at risk.”

When Wellfound opened in May, it came with the expectation that Pierce County’s dire shortage of mental-health beds — 2.8 per 100,000 residents — would be a thing of the past. It came with the expectation that local hospitals, rather than have to park acute-need psychiatric patients in ER wards, would have a full-service facility where they could confidently transfer patients.

And it came with the expectation that local parents would no longer have to worry about their children being denied treatment — that moms wouldn’t have to leave the front door unlocked and go to bed, as Bedez Carter did on July 23, praying that her son with a history of depression and two prior suicide attempts would come home safely.

The family remains baffled that Carter didn’t meet criteria for either of the two types of care Wellfound provides: inpatient admission or crisis stabilization.

From the outside, it seems like a life-or-death game of musical chairs in which a desperate young man who played by the rules was inexplicably left out.

“I think, in the end, it was like he was saying ‘I’m reaching out for help, I’m not getting it. What’s the use? Why even try anymore?’ ” his father said.

Wellfound has had other setbacks, such as losing its CEO a month after opening. But once it gets accredited and achieves full capacity, we expect the dynamics to change for the better. So does U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, who lobbied hard for the hospital three years ago. “I’m absolutely confident that they’ll get it right,” Kilmer told our Editorial Board Wednesday.

Last Friday, interim CEO Matt Crockett sent an email to Wellfound’s 145 employees. He gave updates ahead of the accreditation process this fall — everything from new door handles and soap dispensers to laminated workflow sheets — while vaguely touching on last month’s tragic “loss of life.”

“It is an immensely sad outcome that is difficult to accept or put into words.” (One suggestion: Rather than an “outcome” or “loss of life,” call it a death or a suicide.)

“We are looking for opportunities to ensure our work is safe and comprehensive,” Crockett said, adding that ideas from staff are welcome.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But the local mental-health alliance should also listen closely to voices outside the facility, including families like the Carters, as it tries to recover from a shaky start.