Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Memories of the Asylum

As a young boy it seemed my entire family worked at the Hudson River State Hospital.  My mother was a nurse and my father, grandmother and grandfather were all attendants.  I spent two summers working there as well.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the hospital had already passed its prime, and was beginning the decline that has reached its nadir.
I heard stories of the farm system that was… where patients worked to grow the foodstuffs, milk and dairy products the hospital needed.  The fields were located off East Dorsey Lane, and incorporated the locations of the fire training facility and up along to where Fallkill County Park is located.
My father spoke of "The Cottages" located off Creek Road.  It was my impression they formed what would today be considered half-way homes where patients getting ready for release were provided skills and a more normalized social environment.
In that area the county built the emergency management center.  I wonder does it still exist?
Climbing the hills to the Ross Pavilion where my grandmother worked you passed the homes for many of the senior medical staff.  I was told at its opening Ross had been built as a treatment site for the TB patients the hospital had. The children’s unit was also up the hill, and when I was a student in college I spent one summer working as a summer hire with on the autistic ward the young boys ward.
The grounds were expansive and included a ball field, golf course and marina.  I was told that the NY Yankees had on occasion held walk-on tryouts at the ball field.  I remember attending a few parties at the marina.  Many of the roads still carry the names of the principle building they went to or went past.  For example, paint shop road, or Inwood Avenue both take their names from the facilities.
At one time I believe there were a number of apartments made available to employees and although I can’t recall the names I can still picture them in my minds eye.  Of course as you entered the grounds from Violet Avenue you drove past the homes of the Administrator and Chief of Medicine.
My grandfather and grandmother had moved down to Poughkeepsie sometime in the early 1950’s and took jobs at the hospital.  They came from Lew Beach, in Sullivan County and often talked about the lack of jobs in that area of the state. My grandfather was a versatile wood worker and ran the carpentry shop, located behind the main building.  He and the patients would make Adirondack chairs all winter long. He knew it was time to retire when they decided it was non-therapeutic to run a wood shop and put him to work on a locked ward with geriatric men filled with Thorazine.
My mother, and her twin, attended nursing school at HRSH graduating in 1949.  While in school they lived on the hospital grounds.  This was the only place my mother worked except for a brief period at the end of her career.  I can recall visiting her at Cheney Hall were she moved from ward nurse, to shift nurse.  That was my introduction to the locked wards of the institution and the huge ring of keys almost everyone seemed to carry.
Later in her career she rose to be second in charge of nursing, working for Mrs. Quinlan, who was head nurse.  Mrs. Quinlan’s husband was the county sheriff. 
From time to time it strikes me that all the facility was, and was capable of being, has come to what sits there today -- a mass of perhaps historically important buildings filled with ghosts of progress past.  But the hospital was more than land and buildings -- it was people, both good and bad, sane and insane.  Progressive psychiatric treatments like lobotomies were performed there as was keeping the violent or troubled in padded rooms and straight jackets.  Towards the end thorazine became the drug of choice to restrain the humanity.

I took from my experience an insight into the problems of autism and behavioral psychology (my college major), as well as three silver dollars given me by a wonderful attendant I worked for in the clothing department one summer.  To this day I can’t listen to the Zager and Evans song without picturing myself driving along Cottage Road past the golf course on my way to pick up one of my family after work the spring of my senior year at FDR, wondering what the place would look like in 2525.

1 comment:

Jeannette said...

You have got the stories stored up! What a treasure, for your family especially, that you write your memories an thought down.

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