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Moving Day Comes for 1 State Hospital Patient

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Moving day was filled with conflict and confusion for Patrick West.

It’s not that he wasn’t eager to see his parents, Gene and Patricia, when they arrived Saturday morning at Camarillo State Hospital.

But it was as if he knew there was something different about this visit, as if he could tell--even though he is developmentally disabled and unable to hear or speak--that he might never return to the aging sanctuary.

“As soon as he saw us this morning he was all smiles and ready to go,” said Gene West, holding Patrick’s suitcase in one hand while using the other to lead him away from the hospital ward that had been his home for the past decade.

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“But you can tell he’s anxious,” he added. “I don’t know if it has sunk in yet that he’s going to be living somewhere else. I guess the next few days will tell the tale.”

For Patrick--representative of the 700 patients who must now find new homes as Camarillo State Hospital winds to a close--the tale may have reached its final chapter.

It is a tale that started more than a year ago when Gov. Pete Wilson ordered the closure of the mental hospital by July 1, citing rising costs and a dwindling patient population.

And it continued for months as mental-health advocates joined relatives of Camarillo State patients in urging state officials to keep the place open.

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But with few people listening and the end in sight, those relatives have been forced to adjust to a new reality, one that has seen the state hospital start to empty--room by room, unit by unit.

Gene and Patricia West could have transferred Patrick to a Costa Mesa developmental center, where the bulk of Camarillo State’s mentally retarded patients are expected to go later this year.

They are both in their mid-60s, however, and they visit their 33-year-old son every weekend, so they were not keen on the idea of driving from Oxnard to Orange County on a regular basis.

Instead, they decided to try Patrick in an Oxnard group home for 30 days, with the understanding that if it works out, he will not return to Camarillo State.

That arrangement reflects a nationwide trend toward placing mental patients in community care programs rather than in state hospitals and institutions.

But it also illustrates the types of gut-wrenching decisions that are confronting families as Camarillo State shuts down.

It was a decision that Gene West was still questioning Saturday morning, even as he unloaded Patrick’s things and carried them into his new residence, a four-bedroom home tucked into south Oxnard’s Lemonwood neighborhood and run by a husband-and-wife team with ties to Camarillo State.

“We’re quite close to our son,” he explained. “We bring him home for visits every Saturday and Sunday. We enjoy having him here and he enjoys coming home. We just didn’t want to lose all that.”

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At first, Patrick lived at home with his parents. He went to the state hospital when he entered his teenage years, and then to a Camarillo group home, where he lived for about 10 years.

But when that home closed, Patrick returned to Camarillo State, where he lived in Unit 60, a sun-bleached building crowned with red tile. His belongings were packed up Saturday morning, filling a suitcase, clothing bag and a large cardboard box brimming with family portraits, a red rubberized helmet and art supplies.

As she pushed through a large iron gate that sealed off the unit, Patricia West thanked staff members for their care and support over the years.

“Goodbye, we’ll miss you,” she said. “Hopefully, by a miracle, you won’t have to close.”

There appear to be no miracles on the horizon. Although a group of parents hopes that a portion of the hospital will be set aside as a treatment center for some patients, there has not been much interest in that idea.

Instead, excitement has been stirred by efforts to transform the sprawling hospital campus and its Spanish-style buildings into Ventura County’s first public university. Those plans don’t appear to have any room for a treatment center.

So the patient population continues to dwindle at Camarillo, with departures expected to pick up as the end draws near.

“He’s ready to go,” said senior psychiatric technician Mary Bednar, who worked with Patrick in Unit 60. “But usually he sees his dad and he heads right out the door. He definitely knew something was different today.”

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When Patrick arrived at the group home, clients and care providers came out to welcome him. He walked through the garage--carpeted and bordered on one side by couches--and into the home, where he was shown his room and his bed.

To put his son at ease, Gene West brought over a framed collection of family photos. Patrick sat on his bed, clutching the frame and staring intently at the photos, rocking back and forth in excitement.

“See, that looks familiar, right,” Patricia West told Patrick. “You used to have that up in your old room, remember?”

Afterward, Patrick returned to the dining table where his parents were discussing his care with group home owners Richard and Joy Carino. They own and operate two other facilities in Oxnard and Port Hueneme, and most of their clients have come from Camarillo State.

The state will pay the Carinos to provide full-time care for Patrick. Richard Carino said those costs have yet to be determined but that they will be substantially less than the estimated $114,000 a year per patient at Camarillo State.

Gene West handed over Patrick’s medication and a list of hand signs that could be used to communicate with his son. West said he planned to bring other items from home to help ease the transition.

“That would be very helpful, Mr. West,” said Richard Carino, who also is a registered nurse at Camarillo State and who, like everyone else, will be displaced when the hospital shuts down. “I want to make it as homey as possible. The transition phase is extremely important.”

Saturday afternoon, Patrick joined the group home’s two other clients on an outing to a local bowling alley.

Nervous over Patrick’s reaction to his new surroundings, the Wests peeked in at the bowling alley to see how their son was doing.

Patrick never knew they were there, but Gene and Patricia’s anxiety was eased.

“It’s like any parent when their child leaves home or moves to a new location,” Gene West said. “It’s hard to say goodbye.”


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