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Metropolis / Sosocal

Welcome to the Hotel Catatonia

July 22, 2001|DEBRA J. HOTALING

Think the Four Seasons, sans sharp objects. "A well-staffed Four Seasons, where you'll get very good care," notes Peter Whybrow, the physician-in-chief of UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Hospital, with a slight smile. We're settled in his office overlooking Westwood Boulevard, where construction has begun on UCLA's sprawling new medical center, scheduled to open in 2005.

But this is no vacation. "Many people come here," Whybrow says of the medical center's psychiatric facility, "and that includes many celebrities. But nobody knows they come."

Which takes some doing. The new medical complex, of which the hospital will occupy most of a floor, is being designed to handle forces of nature such as earthquakes, power failure and--as a cutting-edge care center on L.A.'s upscale Westside--celebrity arrivals and departures. The new hospital's design includes darkened windows and sheltered arrival areas, which could certainly discourage enterprising paparazzi. For the 75-bed neuropsych unit, planned features such as residential decor, outdoor recreation, dining and therapeutic gardening bring to mind a cozy European hotel--albeit one with nurses and meds.

While the hospital is open to everyone, the comfort of well-heeled patients is a palpable concern. "If someone is used to being treated as if they're a god, and then they walk into a place where there are other sick people and are treated as if they're an ordinary person, sometimes, especially if they're already very disturbed, they'll just turn around and leave. You have to take people from where they begin."

Don't pity the wealthy, but do consider this: "One of the ironies of people who are rich or celebrities is that they don't get very good care," Whybrow says. "Nobody wants to tell them the truth, largely because the person advising them is in their employment or in awe of them. All those things distort normal social interaction, making life as a [mentally ill] celebrity very difficult."

Nevertheless, you shouldn't call Whybrow looking for a manicure and deep-tissue massage. The hospital treats a spectrum of psychiatric, emotional and developmental disorders--and offers inpatient, partial hospitalization and outpatient treatment. "This is intensive care," he says. It may sound like a resort, but as Whybrow quietly points out, "This is the last resort."

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