‘It is what it is’

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

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on April 11, 2011

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.

bsweet@thetelegram.com