‘It is what it is’

Barb Sweet
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Waterford conditions improved, but building needs to go: officials, advocate

Clinical chief of mental health Dr. David Atwood unlocks a restricted access door, and the Waterford Hospital’s history is revealed in the narrow prison-like rooms with oppressive doors and walls of peeling, stark white paint.

Pipes and cinderblock are exposed in the corridor and the unit’s long-abandoned communal washroom contains the partial remains of its institutional toilets and cubicles.

It’s been decades since this small unit was used for patients.

Boxes of Eastern Health files destined for secure shredding are piled up in the small unit, now used for storage and kept locked away from access to the public, patients and most staff.

One can’t help but shiver at these draconian rooms — in use when the Waterford housed between 700-800 patients and the place was known as The Mental. In this foreboding atmosphere, it’s easy to imagine the anguish of the souls locked away.

“It’s an important thing to remember. How can you ever do different if you don’t remember this?” Atwood says as he lingers in one of the rooms.

“I can’t wait for the day this building comes down. But I must say some important lessons were learned here that need to be carried over.”

Glancing out of the thin-paned window he remarks on how cold and oppressive it must have been.

The main section of the Waterford dates to 1855, four years before the original wing of Her Majesty’s penitentiary was built. The hospital has been expanded as recent as three or four decades ago and there have been numerous rounds of renovations.

Eastern Health is finalizing a redevelopment plan for its hospitals in metro — which includes the Waterford, Health Sciences Complex and St. Clare’s.

If Atwood and Kim Baldwin, director of mental health and addictions, were given the nod for a new facility, things would be different.

They would prefer to see most mental health services moved into the general hospital, a trend in most cities around the country. Patients requiring long-term institutionalizing would then have a separate new facility.

The Health Sciences does have a pyschiatric unit, but Atwood allows there is no space there currently to integrate the Waterford services.

“They started closing this hospital in 1971,” Atwood says of the Waterford.

The Waterford now has only 169 inpatients, which includes acute care, short stays, the forensic unit, geriatrics, psychiatric rehabilitation and developmentally delayed. There is also an emergency room specifically for mental health patients.

The Telegram was not allowed to visit any of the units because of confidentiality and privacy rules — the units are kept locked for patient safety.

The corridors and main areas seem well maintained with polished floors and few areas of peeling paint. There is a chapel, gym, thrift store and recreational opportunities include a woodworking area.

Striking selections of patients’ art lines some of the walls.

The quality of care from health professionals and other staff, says Atwood is exceptional and the facility is kept up as best it can be.

Since 2008, roughly $3.5 million has been spent on various upgrades.

“We’ve been working to improve our units, certainly the aesthetic appeal along with a proper space for people to be able to meet with their families,” Baldwin says.

The complex has extensive grounds and sits on prime real estate across from Bowring Park.

But the building is limited in electrical capacity.

“Anytime they install something new here, they flick the switch and there’s a moment’s hesitation to see if all the lights go out or not,” Atwood says, adding it’s safe.

“We don’t get any brownouts here or any phantom power outages or anything like that.”

Atwood also doesn’t like the fact the units still lock with keys as opposed to electronic passcards.

“To go on a unit and hear bolts sliding, it still sounds a lot more custodial than we would like it to sound these days,” he says.

And there is no privacy. Most of the rooms have multiple occupants, as many as four to a room. Bathrooms are shared on the units.

Kelly Fitzpatrick, whose son suffers from schizophrenia and is a longtime patient of the Waterford, is scathing in her assessment of the facility’s current units.

“It’s ridiculous in there,” the Alberta woman says in a phone interview. She visits her son when she comes home to the province every year.

She says her son’s room hasn’t seen a paint brush in years, it’s stifling in summer and the ventilation is poor.

“He’s at the point where I don’t think he knows any better,” Fitzpatrick says.

“I am sure if his surroundings were better he might do better himself.”

Eastern Health has put in some air conditioning but only in a few common areas so far.

The evidence of the hospital’s age is further found in the bowels of the structure, where the river — its rushing water audible below the concrete cap —  actually passes through the complex. There is a labyrinth of startling dirt and stone floor rooms usually only frequented by maintenance staff keeping the plumbing and heating systems humming. An old tunnel — used years ago by staff to get from wing to another — reveals the foundation of layered rock.

George Skinner, executive director of the provincial division of the Canadian Mental Health Association, says he commends the work done by Eastern Health in the past three years to upgrade the facility and that maintenace staff make the best of the situation. But the fact remains it needs to be replaced.

“(Government) certainly knows how we feel about this,” Skinner says in a phone interview.

If any hospital is to be replaced, Skinner says the Waterford should go first, both for its age and its stigma. People suffering from mental health issues are reluctant to go there and if the services were blended in with the General Hospital, which has a psychiatric unit but mostly treats physical ailments, attitudes toward mental health might improve, he says.

Over the years, Eastern Heath and its predecessor has tried to erase some of the Waterford stigma by locating some general health services there, including X-ray, blood tests and more recently a dialysis unit. The authority’s headquarters are in the Waterford Complex, although CEO Vickie Kaminski has moved over to the General Hospital.

But it’s still primarly known as a mental health hospital.

“The physical plant is a concern. But every day we are wrestling with the stigma of mental illness,” Skinner says.

“We would encourage government to expedite the Waterford plans as a higher priority … it’s outlived its usefulness.”

Atwood says while people may be reluctant to seek treatment there, they are glad to have the care once they do.

“Unfortunately the Waterford has come into people’s lives at catastrophic moments … But it’s been there for better or for worse. We’d all like it to be better, but it is what it is,” he says.


Organizations: Waterford Hospital, Atwood and Kim Baldwin, The Health Canadian Mental Health Association General Hospital

Geographic location: Bowring Park, Alberta

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Recent comments

  • Catherine
    April 12, 2011 - 10:23

    I visited a family member at the Waterford for many years, and if he could have only wrote a book, what a book it would have been. 95% of the workers were wonderful but the other 5% should have been committed themselves. Some were down right cruel and got away with it. But that's another story. I keep hearing about the need for a new prison but the people who have to be in hospital for mental illness, some for a lifetime, should have a more up to date building more pleasant surroundings. This place is for a lot of patients there home. The goverment also needs to look at a new Seniors Complex. St. Pats Home also leaves a lot to be desired. So before we make it better for our law breaking citizens , how about we make it better for our law abiding citizens and there family's.

  • Gerri
    April 11, 2011 - 20:07

    " It is what it is" is not good enough. I have so many problems with the Waterford. Anyone who has had a family member stay at the Waterford know of what I write. No privacy, no air conditioning on certain floors, overcrowded rooms, short staffed and its own unique smell. When you enter the building, 1855 is over the entrance. Need I say more! It is 2011 and we are still segregating people with mental illness and putting them in this archaic building. If the professionals consider mental illness to be a true illness why is it isolated to its own site. Mr. Kennedy, you cannot look at this situation and think it is fine because 3.5 million is helping to clean up the image.Let's start by listening to the professionals like Dr. Atwood and Dir. Kim Baldwin. I am sure they have much to offer. Let' s come out of the dark ages, tear down this building and treat mental illness like any other illness. The Waterford will always be considered "The Mental" and you can paint, air condition, shine the floors but " it is what it is."

  • Sharon
    April 11, 2011 - 19:51

    Tear this building down,this is a total disgrace to our sick,These patients deserve the best treatment they can receive Why can't they go to the Health Science or St Clare's, Mr Kennedy I would like for you to stop and think what these people are going through,no air conditioning,no clean rooms,the smell is unbearable,5 men or women in one room.The conditions are deplorable,this needs to happen now.please tear this building "the mental" down.

  • Kevin
    April 11, 2011 - 14:32

    This hospital is an absolute dump. It is not fit for patients, or their visiting families. From the moment you walk up the front entrance you are heckled for cigarettes or money. This should not be happening at the entrance of a hospital. You then walk the halls, of what seems like a relatively clean place, until you see urine stains on the floor, and most times there was people lying in the halls. Next is the cloudy windows, and strips of paint peeling from the walls. Most bathrooms in patents rooms are not even wheelchair assessible. Patents do not even have buzzers if they need nursing assistants. Please tell me how a disabled person is suppose to yell out to a nursing station 15-20 foot downa hall? This should be a priority of the provincial government, this hospital has got to go immediately.

  • chris oneill
    April 11, 2011 - 12:49

    My only comments is that I have worked many years as a psychiatric attendant during the 50's and sixty's The patients need we given professionly with good treatment,good shelter and good food, yes pu blic had its fears but they were safe because the H.M.N.D. as it was also known then WAS there and we should be also greatful

  • Dave
    April 11, 2011 - 12:39

    Antiquity.2 An object or building from the distant past. I.e., Cat o' Nine Tails, Waterford. Nothing is more disturbing than our own history. The fiendish cat o' nines are vivid in the minds of those who remember history. Sadly for some, first hand. Nothing was more crude than the benefaction delivered in the early days of many an institution, Waterford Inclusive. However, the argument against the tearing down of an antique, lies in a couple famous quotes. George Santayana - "Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them." "If you knew your history, then you would know where you're coming from." Bob Marley. Buildings have been torn down and books have been burnt for many absurdly unsanctimonious reasons. Let's quit repeating ourselves. Dave.

  • Bibbie from NL
    April 11, 2011 - 11:50

    I am on the same mind as Jason here. Good God, Heather, it is still a hospital so why wouldn't Dialysis belong there. What a snobbish statement. I hope you never have someone who may have a nervous disease, my dear there is no shame in having a nervous condition. If you are sick, it can be physical or of the mind. The shame is on you for your bigoted way of thinking and it is people like you who have an effect on people who need help and are reluctant to seek it because of the way people stigmatize everything. I avail of this hospital to have tests done and not for one minute do I think it is any different than the other two hospitals. There are sick people at all hospitals.

  • Just Caring
    April 11, 2011 - 11:33

    Give me a break " no matter their origens (spell check origins), or barbaric conditions that were sacrocanct. ( spell check)(sacrosanct = blessed, holy, pure, revered etc.) " I worked there for four years back in the mid 70's and the ignorance of the general public (not all) and the stigma of being admitted or commited to the "mental" was revolting. The patient care was there, and the staff were dedicated but the facility was terrible except for the new north wing. Tear it down and let the memory of a building that was built so far removed from the populus that the patients were taken by a train car to a siding go away and place it in the history books where it belongs with the cat-o-nine tails. We are taking illness, the same as any physical illness, and these patients deserve the same quality service including physical amenities as an open heart patient. Listen to the experts like Dr. Atwood. Just a thought Caring!

  • Dave
    April 11, 2011 - 10:20

    The oldest part of this building should not be torn down. At least a good portion of it should remain. In a city of antiquities we should monopolize the older buildings no matter their origens, or barbaric conditions that were sacrocanct. I am unfamiliar with the layout of this building on the grounds in this locale, however to have a building of this age remain into the next decades would only add to the appeal of our city as a tourist destination. So if it is in the future to rebuild on this site, let's attempt to retain some of the age. Watchin' the Years.

  • Frank Blackwood
    April 11, 2011 - 09:29

    I remember the "Hospital For Mental And Nervous Diseases." There is one thing for certain despite the ageing framework of this institution, the patients got the best of care, and there were some excellent programs in Rehabiliation and Behavioural Modification. The management took a keen interest in programs and having the best of professionals to do the work. The Volunteer Department was the backbone of the hospital! Of course, I am referring to the 1960-70's when there was the Lunacy Board. I worked with some very difficult cases that were gradually placed in boarding and foster homes, with good families. There were special people working to care for the patients in all disciplines,the demand for empty beds was not a problem. Today, its medication therapy and back in the community. The treatment programs and care for mental patients across Canada are not the same today. There seems to be limited time for rehabilitation with greater concers on cost and getting a patient discharged as soon as possible. Families do have bad memories of how their relatives were treated there, but overall the treatment at HMND was excellent in those times. There was that kind and caring approach from dedicated professionals who believed that good patient care was more important than green back dollars, like today. Structural changes are always a must in every institution but taking away its uniqueness always leaves a cold, polished, cheap environment. Frank Blackwood; BSC,MA Psy. HMND 1970's

  • Graham
    April 11, 2011 - 09:14

    Tell us again Health Minister Kennedy why you think there is no crisis in health care. Or does mental health not count with you.

  • Jason
    April 11, 2011 - 08:20

    Just wondering if I am reading Heather's statement correctly...........it sounds as though you are suggesting that the Dialysis unit be moved out of the Waterford because it should be in a "nicer building" with easy access and "nicer surroundings". Surely patients affected by mental illness deserve the same level of treatment...................please tell me that I am reading your statement incorrectly and that is not what you are stating.

    • Heather Dunn
      April 11, 2011 - 19:05

      No you are not reading it right. I think the waterford and all hospitals should be nice,but dialysis does not belong there for alot of reasons.One is because it is difficult for sick dialysis patients to get into. If you had a person on dialysis such as I did you would understand what I am talking about.I speak from what I know first hand.People with any illness deserve a nice surrounding.It could be us some day .I would like for people with any sickness to be treated right .

  • Heather Dunn
    April 11, 2011 - 07:51

    Waterford will always be know as a mental hosptial whether it is torn down or not. Yes it needs work ,but to move different dept there to try to get the stigma away is not going to work .But who ever made the choice to move dialysis to that building, was so wrong . Dialysis belongs in the hospital or close by a hosptial.It should be a nicer building ,easy access and nicer surrounding s.So if they built a new building Hope they make the right chioces for it.

  • Nostalgic Scholar
    April 11, 2011 - 07:27

    For those of you who haven't, please read "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Then come back and read this article again.