As a child, Jake Vanderbloemen screamed uncontrollably, jumped out of second-story windows and threatened people with knives, leading to nine stays in a psychiatric hospital over six years.
Today, the 22-year-old from Waunakee works full time, visits the Wisconsin Dells with his girlfriend and plans to move his eclectic collection of athletic memorabilia and video games into his first apartment this fall.
“My friends call me an eBay shark,” he said.
His mother imagines a different outcome if it hadn’t been for Meriter-UnityPoint Health’s Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital, where Jake spent 314 days from ages 7 to 13 for complications of autism and schizoaffective disorder.
“I shudder to think where Jake would be without it,” Kate Vanderbloemen said. “I honestly don’t know if he’d be alive.”
Meriter is celebrating the 10th anniversary of the hospital, off Raymond Road in southwest Madison, and reconfirming its commitment to the service, which loses money most years.
The 20-bed Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital, which treats patients ages 6 to 18, is one of just seven such private inpatient units in the state.
The others are Aurora Psychiatric Hospital in Wauwatosa, Bellin Psychiatric Center in Green Bay, St. Elizabeth Hospital in Appleton, Wheaton Franciscan-All Saints in Racine and Rogers Memorial Hospital locations in Oconomowoc and West Allis. Rogers plans to open another unit in Brown Deer next year.
At Meriter’s facility, the number of patients admitted has gone from 461 in 2004 to 769 last year, with an expected total of more than 800 this year. The increase is partly driven by insurance companies expecting shorter stays. But it is also fueled by greater demand for care in response to school shootings and other tragedies around the country tied to untreated mental illness among youth.
“People are more aware, and they’re more frightened of those really awful things happening,” said Karen Larson, the hospital’s nurse manager.
Inside the hospital
Meriter opened an adolescent psychiatry unit in 1988 at its former campus near Capitol Square, adding children seven years later. An adult unit was also located there.
Administrators decided to move the adult unit to Meriter’s headquarters on Park Street and chose the Raymond Road site for the child and adolescent unit. With an indoor gym and outdoor basketball court and play structure, the $4.2 million hospital, on 60 acres atop a hill near the Ice Age Trail, can accommodate youthful activity and noise, Larson said.
The hospital, which opened in February 2004, has two main wings: eight beds for patients ages 6 to 12 and 12 beds for those ages 13 to 18.
Crayons, Legos and a dollhouse can be found in the common room of the children’s wing, where a SpongeBob SquarePants episode played on a recent day.
Each room of the adolescent wing has a starker feature: a suicide-prevention bathroom door, made of foam and attached to the wall with magnets. “There’s no risk of hanging that way,” Larson said.
A restraint bed was removed two years ago, but a seclusion room remains. It has been used about a dozen times in each of the past two years, when there is “imminent danger to self or others and everything we’ve done to de-escalate has been unsuccessful,” Larson said.
A calming room was added last year, with music, aroma therapy, dim lighting, stuffed animals and rocking chairs.
The Meriter Foundation equipped the room, part of nearly $450,000 the foundation has contributed the past four years to upgrade the hospital, train staff and add programs such as movement-based therapy.
The foundation’s support, to be continued through a fundraiser dinner Nov. 2 at L’Etoile Restaurant, is separate from the hospital’s budget, which typically sees an annual loss of about $220,000, Meriter spokeswoman Leah Huibregtse said.
Meriter, which became part of Iowa-based UnityPoint Health this year, recently decided to close two other money-losing services: the Max W. Pohle Dental Clinic and a home health care service to low-income residents in the Triangle area by Brittingham Park.
But Meriter has no plans to drop inpatient child and adolescent psychiatry.
“UnityPoint Health has always been and will always be committed to behavioral health,” Peter Thoreen, interim CEO of Meriter, said in a statement. “It’s one of the core services that align with our values and mission as the community hospital.”
Patients are admitted through referrals from their providers or emergency rooms. Children are often dealing with anxiety, neglect, abuse, attachment issues or attention deficit disorders, Larson said. Adolescents sometimes wrestle with the same things, along with depression, psychoses or suicidal thoughts or attempts.
“It seems like the younger ones externalize and the older ones internalize,” Larson said.
With two schoolteachers on staff, patients get two hours of education each weekday. The average stay is six days, down from 10 days in 2004.
Treatments include medications, behavioral therapies and occupational and recreational therapies, which can involve activities such as cooking, gardening and movies.
Staff use a variety of approaches to direct behaviors, such as a “love and logic” strategy that lets patients join group activities if they brush their teeth, for example.
“Kids come in here very dysregulated,” Larson said. “The way we communicate expectations to them can trigger an explosion or it can trigger cooperation.”
Jake Vanderbloemen exploded at home and at school as a child, his mother said, hitting, biting, pulling hair, throwing objects, wandering away on his own and threatening people with knives, rocks and scissors.
Once, after mounting a construction vehicle and refusing to come down for a long time, he kicked his grandmother in the face, giving her a black eye.
He repeatedly climbed out of windows. “He really thought he could fly like a bird,” said Kate Vanderbloemen, a special education teacher in Waunakee.
His first stay in the psychiatric hospital, at age 7, lasted three months.
“It was about as gut-wrenching as it gets,” his mother said. “But if you want to save your child, you have to take that step.”
Another stay lasted five weeks, but most were considerably shorter. He was hospitalized six times in Meriter’s old unit near Capitol Square and three times in the newer facility off Raymond Road.
During his last stay, at age 13, doctors found a drug combination that stabilized him, Kate Vanderbloemen said.
Jake Vanderbloemen spent the next year at a residential facility before starting public school again. He graduated from Waunakee High School in 2010 and participated in the transition-to-work program for students with developmental disabilities.
He has worked full time the past two years at Waunakee-based Nord Gear, which makes motors and machine drives.
He is a captain of the Wisconsin Timber Wolves, a special needs hockey team that will travel to St. Louis for a tournament this month.
He and his girlfriend, mutual fans of Buffalo Wild Wings restaurants, celebrated their first anniversary together in August by taking a Wisconsin Ducks boat tour in the Wisconsin Dells.
“I can pretty much function everyday like a normal adult,” Jake Vanderbloemen said. “I’m a happy guy.”
He plans to move into a new apartment complex in Waunakee Dec. 1, bringing his many trophies, helmets, jerseys and pennants, along with a vending machine, an Xbox, a PlayStation and a Galaga arcade console that can play many games.
As he embarks on adult life, he said he tries to forget as much as he can about his hospitalizations.
“It was a rough patch,” he said. “But at the same time, it did wonders. I’m very grateful for everything they did.”