University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss., Thursday, April 28, 2022. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

The University of Mississippi Medical Center has announced it is filling a health care gap for burn care in Mississippi after the closure of the state’s only burn center. 

But in the case of children with burns, the hospital is sending these patients out of state, according to an internal email from a UMMC Burn Committee member sent this week and obtained by Mississippi Today.

On at least one recent occasion, UMMC sent a pediatric burn patient to an out-of-state children’s hospital. 

UMMC officials have publicly said they are caring for both adult and pediatric burn patients. At a Jan. 20 press conference announcing the creation of the burn center, the newly named medical director said the hospital has the necessary pediatric subspecialties to treat children with burns.

“We’ve got pediatric subspecialty-trained plastic surgeons and general surgeons that are 100% on board with managing that specific patient population,” said Dr. Peter Arnold, professor and division chief of plastic surgery at UMMC.  

Over the weekend of Jan. 27, a child with a noncritical burn arrived at Winston Medical Center in Louisville, according to hospital officials. When the hospital attempted to transfer the patient to UMMC, the transfer was denied.

“The review I got was that everything was not ready for pediatric (burns) at UMMC,” Robert Turcotte, director of nursing at Winston Medical Center, told Mississippi Today.

Instead, the child was sent to LeBonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis – a three-hour drive from Louisville. LeBonheur is not a designated burn center but does provide care for kids with burns less than 30% of the total body surface area. It also provides follow-up care in a weekly trauma/burn clinic.

Burn injuries are particularly time sensitive, experts say – a delay in treatment can lead to worsened outcomes and increased mortality. 

 “I can confirm that UMMC continues to care for a large number of adult and pediatric patients with acute burns and that number increases every day,” an emailed statement from UMMC’s communications director attributed to Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs at UMMC, said on Monday. 

Jones, through the communications office, said the hospital cannot comment on specific patient information, but there are “many variables” considered when deciding on “the safest and most appropriate care for a patient.” 

Later this week, however, a member of the newly formed Burn Committee at UMMC listed in an internal email obtained by Mississippi Today examples of burn patients the hospital is not admitting. Those include: patients with burns greater than 20% of total body surface area; inhalational injury; electric burns; burn lesions to face, hands, feet, genitals; and, finally, children. 

In response to questions about the contents of the email, UMMC Director of Communications Patrice Guilfoyle sent an emailed statement: “As part of our ongoing work around the processes and and procedures of the new Burn Center, we will receive Mississippi burn patients transferred to UMMC and then the care team, upon evaluation, will make the decision on burn treatment that’s in the best interest of the patient. Our Emergency Department last week notified emergency care staff, including Mississippi MED-COM, that we would accept transfers of all burn patients.”

MED-COM is the emergency communications for UMMC and hospitals and emergency providers throughout Mississippi. 

Lawmakers on Friday debated a bill regarding the establishment of a burn center in the state, and several appeared confused about UMMC’s status in caring for burn patients. One state senator quoted from UMMC’s press release stating the burn center had already been established at UMMC. 

“I just went on the website for the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and I’m reading a release that just came out three weeks ago that says ‘I am pleased to announce the establishment of the Mississippi Burn Center,’” Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said during debate on the Senate floor. 

Another senator pointed out the Institutions of Higher Learning had approved UMMC to become a burn center.

“The IHL board does not have the ability to name the burn center in Mississippi. The Health Department determines that,” responded Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg. 

After the burn center in Greenville closed in 2005, state lawmakers in 2006 approached then-Vice Chancellor of the University of Mississippi Medical Center Dr. Dan Jones about establishing a burn center at UMMC. Jones told Mississippi Today he asked lawmakers for a yearly commitment to help UMMC run the program, but lawmakers only offered one-time money.  

UMMC walked away, citing financial constraints, but lawmakers nevertheless passed a bill in 2007, sans funding, authorizing the university to create the Mississippi Burn Center. The bill being debated Friday brings forward that code section for possible amendments. Polk wanted to change the language from UMMC “shall” establish the Mississippi Burn Center to “may” establish – in light of possible competition from Mississippi Baptist Medical Center.

According to the internal email, UMMC officials are uncertain of how long the process of becoming a burn center will take. The goal, it says, is for UMMC to become a burn center admitting complex cases by January of 2025. 

It also said the committee is aware most providers at UMMC do not have experience treating burn patients but there will be burn care education and training offered. Only about three additional employees will be hired at this time.

The former medical director at Merit Health Central’s burn center, Dr. Derek Culnan, is currently treating burn patients at Baptist. Speaker of the House Philip Gunn authored a bill that would allocate $12 million to establish a burn center at Baptist in Jackson. That bill is still pending. 

Culnan, a fellowship-trained burn surgeon, is being sued by his former employer and the operator of the center at Merit Health Central, Joseph M. Still (JMS) Burn Center Inc., for allegedly violating his employment contract by soliciting JMS employees to join his new company. He created the new company after Merit Health Central announced it would be closing the burn center. 

Officials with Baptist declined to comment when asked about the lawsuit’s impact on a potential burn center.

“It would be inappropriate for us to discuss an active lawsuit or any related plans. However, as always, we can confirm that we are committed to providing quality care for the residents of Mississippi,” a statement from Kimberly Alexander, public relations manager for Baptist Memorial Health Care, said. 

Alexander said Culnan and his team have treated 14 pediatric burn patients since he began there in late November.

Editor’s note: Kate Royals, Mississippi Today’s community health editor since January 2022, worked as a writer/editor for UMMC’s Office of Communications from November 2018 through August 2020, writing press releases and features about the medical center’s schools of dentistry and nursing.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.