Century-old East Oregon mental hospital winds down

By By KATHY ANEY

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) — Inside the palatial Blue Mountain Recovery Center, only three clients remain on a second-floor ward. Other wards are dim and abandoned.

The Pendleton mental health hospital will officially shut down on March 31 after decades of scrutiny by the Oregon Legislature and dozens of 11th-hour saves. More than half of the 117 employees have already left to take other jobs.

The hospital is a curious blend of activity and long empty hallways, offices and treatment rooms. Even though the client population is dwindling, therapists, kitchen workers and office staff continue to do their jobs to support those who remain.

A foray into some of the empty wings is a journey back in time. One can almost hear echoes of past patients as they faced their demons.

In a closed men's wing, mattresses and bedframes sit stacked neatly in the wide hallway. A television room contains a flat screen and a couple of leather chairs. A medication cart sits idle.

Downstairs are several old hydrotherapy rooms. Patients once soaked in cold water there in an attempt to cool them down and rid them of problem behaviors. When the practice went out of favor, the rooms were repurposed into seclusion/restraint rooms and, later, offices.

Five pianos scattered around the facility once got use, as did a tiny courtroom on the second floor, complete with flag and judge's bench.

The hulking facility is an inefficient, deteriorating budget-buster, say its detractors.

The 101-year-old mental hospital sits by the railroad tracks next door to the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution. In the early days, patients often came by train to live out their days at the facility, which housed more than 500 people in its heyday. Mental illness was a hazy concept in the early 1900s and knowledge of brain chemistry was in its infancy. The term "schizophrenic" had just been coined. Conditions such as adolescence, occult study, senility, epilepsy, moonshine drinking and syphilis were among reasons to commit someone to state care.

The hospital's name morphed over the decades, starting out as Eastern Oregon State Hospital and renamed to Eastern Oregon Psychiatric Center and finally Blue Mountain Recovery Center. Mission and treatment methods changed, too.

Instead of warehousing people, the hospital became a place of recovery. Clients, struggling with such disorders as schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar disorder, were stabilized, treated and sent back to their lives.

BMRC Superintendent Kerry Kelly came to the then 60-bed hospital about 14 years ago as a nurse. She seems resigned to the closure. Filled boxes sit stacked on the floor in her sunlit office. Kelly doesn't expect an 11th-hour save this time, though a local group has one plan in the works. Kelly has already secured a nurse manager job at the civil unit of the Oregon State Hospital in Salem.

She is philosophical about the mental hospital's fight to exist over the past couple of decades.

"The first year I was here, we faced closure — I think there was just one biennium since (then) that we didn't," Kelly said. "We just soldiered on, put our heads down and did our work. We had a job to do."

Recruiting for physicians, nurse practitioners and other staff was a sort of a Catch-22. Recruiting was difficult, Kelly said, because of the persistent threat of closure. Yet, Kelly said, some lawmakers cited difficulty to recruit as one of the reasons for closure.

The BMRC staff has shrunk in the past several months.

"They've gone on to many different programs," Kelly said.

Some transferred to the Oregon State Hospital, Kelly said, and several others are now working for different state agencies. Some employees transferred to the Oregon State Hospital will ultimately end up in Junction City where an $80 million state psychiatric hospital is under construction. The facility is slated to open in 2015.

A couple of nurses took out-of-state jobs. Some accepted jobs across Westgate at one of three five-bed facilities that opened recently at the old Eastern Oregon Training Center campus. Ten people are retiring.

"Some are actively looking," Kelly said. "Another group is looking on this as an opportunity to go back to school."

Kelly will bid them all good-bye.

"I'll be here until the end," she said.

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