Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Memories of the Asylum

It seemed my entire family worked at the Hudson River State Hospital when I was a young boy.  My mother was a nurse and my father, grandmother, and grandfather were all attendants.  In High School and College 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 a decline that has reached its nadir.
I remember hearing stories of the farm system that was.  A place 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.  I believe that today they would be considered half-way homes where patients getting ready for release, or patients that needed only minimum supervision and care were provided skills within a more normal social environment.
This was a area, below the Ross Pavilion where Dutchess County built an emergency management center.  I wonder does it still exist?
Climbing the hills to the Ross Pavilion, where my grandmother worked, we would pass 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 the autistic and emotionally disturbed youngsters that lived in Hillcrest.
The hospitial grounds were expansive and included a ball field, a golf course and a marina.  I was told the NY Yankees had on at least one 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 sedated with thorazine.
My mother, and her twin, graduated from the nursing school at HRSH 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.  Padded rooms and straight jackets were used, and in the end psychotropic drugs replaced physical activities and pacified the geriatric patients so they could be easily controlled by a diminishing staff of overworked attendants.  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, in the year 2525, 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 the future.

Unfortunately, today is the future and we know what it looks like and it isn't pretty.

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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