March 09, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The patients were coming in almost faster than the staff could count them.

Twenty-six patients were in beds on the medical-surgical floor of Grande Ronde Hospital. Two more women, recovering from surgery, were put in beds on the maternity floor, joining two new mothers and babies.

And the sick and injured kept arriving Thursday.

To cap it all, two hospital employees called in sick.

As the evening wore on, a few hospital patients grew worse and had to be transferred to the intensive care unit. Eventually, four intensive care beds, the maximum number, were occupied. For the first time in Administrator Jim Mattess memory, Grande Ronde Hospital stopped taking new patients, sending three to other hospitals.

Yesterday was extraordinary, Mattes said Friday. This has not happened before here, but it has happened in other places.

Janet Wright, hospital vice president for patient care services, said the hospital followed a precise procedure when deciding who to transfer.

We assessed everybody in the emergency room, and we had the physician make the decisions for transferring patients, Wright said.

Two patients were sent to Walla Walla and a third went to Baker City, Wright

said. Grande Ronde Hospital made the arrangements.

Wright said the hospital makes sure a bed and the proper medical care are available before transferring a patient.

We were preparing to transfer patients to Pendleton, but when we called, they said they were diverting, too, Mattes said.

Staff worked overtime. One supervisor came to work Thursday morning and did not go home until 11 p.m., a 16-hour shift, Wright said.

Mattes and Wright praised the hospital staffs response to Thursdays crisis.

The people in this community show up big time, Wright said. They work until they drop.

A fairly complex formula governs the hospitals staffing level and the number of patients that the hospital can accept, Mattes said.

Staffing is based upon the average number of patients per day. On the medical-surgical floor, 13 is the average number, half the number on the floor Thursday.

The amount of care required by patients also affects the number that can be admitted, Mattes said.

We had a lot of very sick patients, he said.

By Friday, the situation had improved, with several patients being discharged.

Were on the edge today, Wright said.

Were on divert alert, Mattes said.

Earlier this winter, the hospital almost reached the point of diverting patients, he said.

We hope it doesnt happen again, but we wont be surprised if it does, Mattes said.

At one time the hospital could use a pool of on-call nurses to help in a crisis situation, but Wright said the pool no longer exists.

Mattes said the serious nursing shortage which has affected other areas in the Northwest probably will reach Eastern Oregon in the near future. With fewer nurses, the hospital may be forced to make many difficult decisions, he said.

Were facing a staffing crisis not only nurses but other staff, he said.

Grande Rondes proximity to the Oregon Health Sciences School of Nursing at Eastern Oregon University has helped to maintain the hospitals nursing staff at a good level.

The nursing school is a godsend for us, Mattes said. Weve had access to well trained nurses for years, and wed be facing a real problem if we didnt have it.

But nurses are aging and young people are not entering the field. Mattes said that statistics show the average age of registered nurses at 46.

Wright said that the nursing profession faces competition with other professional careers that may pay higher salaries and offer better