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Beginning of the End : Move to Costa Mesa Starts Shutdown of State Hospital

May 04, 1997|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMARILLO — John Chase hoped this day would never come.

Since learning that Camarillo State Hospital was in danger of closing, and that his daughter could be uprooted from her home of 35 years and shipped somewhere else, no one fought harder to keep the institution open.

It was a fight to save something special, Chase said, to preserve a place where his daughter had found her way and flourished. But it was a fight that for him all but ended Wednesday morning outside a sun-bleached, Spanish-style building known as Unit 88.

That is where Pam Chase and the 28 other developmentally disabled patients on that unit were loaded into vans waiting to shuttle them to a new home two hours away in Costa Mesa.

It was the first large-scale move out of the state hospital, which is scheduled to close this summer.

Citing the facility's dwindling patient population and its spiraling costs, Gov. Pete Wilson last year ordered the shuttering of the state institution by June 30.

While hundreds of patients remain at Camarillo State, waiting their turn to transfer to other facilities, the departure of Unit 88 ushers in a new reality for the aging sanctuary, one that pushes it well into its final days.

"I hate to admit it, but it certainly does appear to be the end," said Chase, who along with other parents waged a legal battle aimed at blocking the patient transfers and sparing the hospital from closure.

"It's a real shame," he added. "Every time I think about it, I just get sick."

*

No group of Camarillo State patients has been together longer than those on Unit 88. Some patients have shared the hospital ward for decades.

Together they have celebrated birthdays and holidays, bonding as friends and becoming like family.

And together they traveled 91 miles Wednesday to the Fairview Developmental Center, where they started new lives in a new home deep in the heart of Orange County.

The transition was fraught with turbulence. To be sure, it is a huge undertaking just to move so many people and all their belongings, all at one time.

But there was more to it than that.

Teary-eyed hospital workers traded hugs with their clients, letting them know they would be missed.

Some clients clutched stuffed animals as they shuffled through an iron gate that guards a courtyard behind the old hospital unit. One man said he didn't want to leave, prompting workers to gather around, first to calm him and then to help him out the door.

Most patients seemed to take it all in stride. But staff members said it was hard to tell how many knew they were leaving for good.

Only time will tell how they get along in this new place, away from their routine and the people they know best.

"It broke my heart when they left this morning," Lauri Leach, who worked on Unit 88 for six years and accompanied the patients to Fairview to help them get settled, said Wednesday. "These guys are like family. It was really hard to say goodbye."

Largest Wave of Transfers

Across the sprawling state hospital campus, such scenes are likely to play out over and over as the 60-year-old institution empties out room by room, unit by unit.

This year nearly 300 patients have left the state hospital, dropping its overall population to 421.

Last week marked the beginning of the largest wave of transfers, with more than 60 patients scattered to other facilities over a three-day period. Another 30 are scheduled to leave Camarillo this week.

The bulk of those who left last week are mentally retarded clients funneled to Fairview, a developmental center that has had its own share of controversy.

A class-action lawsuit filed in March on behalf of about 800 disabled adults at the facility alleges that residents are being moved from the institution into inadequately supervised group homes, sometimes resulting in injury or death.

The lawsuit was initiated by Dr. William Cable, Fairview's chief of medical staff, who filed a federal lawsuit earlier this year, alleging that he was retaliated against for objecting to such community placements.

Fairview officials said they could not comment on the pending legal cases. But they said those actions will have no bearing on patient transfers to the facility, where 105 former Camarillo patients already make their home.

In addition to the developmentally disabled clients who transferred last week, several mentally ill patients also moved to other state facilities or community care programs.

Oxnard resident Leo O'Hearn removed his schizophrenic son, Steven, from Camarillo State on Wednesday, placing him in a program close to home rather than allowing him to transfer to a state facility 80 miles away.

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Steven O'Hearn arrived at the state hospital two decades ago. On Wednesday, he was the last to leave his unit, now a shell of the place that helped pluck him from a world of delusion and hallucination.

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