Moving day for a hospital

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
November 1st, 2012

On the first Tuesday in October 2012, 130 people being treated for mental illness quietly slipped away from Worcester State Hospital. They were preceded by more than three times that number of staff who had started the exodus the previous week. The first group boarded a luxury motor coach at eight in the morning for the quarter mile ride to the new Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital just down the hill from the 1950’s era building that was the last remnant of one of the first state hospitals in the country.

The move was the culmination of nearly a decade of planning and construction of a new facility designed to help people learn to manage their mental illnesses so they might return to the community to pursue their hopes and dreams.

When I wrote about this project six months ago (The Birth of a New Hospital, New England Psychologist, March 2012), the nearly completed building seemed to be lacking only the people whose stories would be told and re-worked within its walls. Now we are here and this is how it happened. The new hospital was originally scheduled to open on August 21 but, as is the case with most new construction, hidden surprises that need to be addressed come to light as the work proceeds. We knew that something would have to be done about the nearly 200 year old clock tower from the original hospital, a symbol of the old embraced by the new that was structurally too unstable to leave in place. The tower was to be taken down and replaced by a smaller version composed of old and new building materials. Did the demolition have to be complete before the new hospital opened or could it be done later? If it had to be done first, then why was the tower still standing?

There was no shortage of rumors to explain the delay. One involved the historical society’s determination to document the location of every brick in the existing structure presumably to guide those charged with reconstructing a mini-tower with some of these same materials. As rumors go, my personal favorite had it that a protected species of bird was nesting in the old tower and would have to be re-located before demolition could begin. Of course, there were more mundane and probably more accurate theories about why the building was not ready for occupancy in August. You don’t take possession of a $500 million building unless you are as certain as you can be that there are no major construction flaws.

For most of us, it mattered little whether we moved into the new hospital in August or at some later date. We continued to tour the facility and became more familiar with its sprawling layout on every visit. We described the building to our patients and explained how it would promote a recovery model of treatment. We had time to pack and to discard the accretions of years so that we could travel light into our new workplace. As psychologists, there is really very little we need to do our work. For better or worse, we are the instruments of the changes our patients want to make in their lives. All we really need is what we have learned about human behavior and the capacity to listen reflectively and respond with empathy, curiosity and good sense.

It is no small task to move a hospital, to bring people, apparatus, equipment, medical records and supplies to a designated place at an appointed time in the right sequence without loss or damage. While our administrators managed the logistics of the move, we were free to address the human dimension. We learned that we could not generalize about how people would respond to the move. To assume that everyone would be pleased to trade a run-down hospital building for a shiny new structure with all the conveniences that modern technology could provide is to miss the incontrovertible fact that the only place most people wanted to move was home.

When the day came, the actual move took no more than a few hours. Because the existing hospital units were reorganized, there were new groupings of patients and staff facing the challenge of working together in a new environment. For some, the situation was the quintessential fresh start. For others, the change evoked anxiety that their privileges would be decreased and their momentum toward discharge slowed as their new clinical teams took time to get to know them.

In those first days the staff gave reassurance, dispensed information, confessed ignorance and promised to do our best to find out what we didn’t know and address the glitches that appear in the best made plans and the best made buildings. We toured the building together, got lost together, laughed, showed patience with one another and began to appreciate all the comforts, conveniences and opportunities of this beautiful new place. The builders had done their work well and now we were making a good start on ours.

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist at Worcester State Hospital and a consultant in the field of leadership development.

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