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Moving Moments

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the last 18 psychiatric patients entered vans Tuesday to be moved out of Camarillo State Hospital, their caretakers wept.

This, finally, was it.

Budget cutbacks and changes in psychiatric policy had brought an end to 61 years of pioneering research and patient care at Camarillo State.

On this last day of treatment, whining wheelchair lifts helped pack up the seven men left in the skilled nursing unit for transfer to other facilities.

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The last 11 boys from the children and adolescents unit clambered into vans for the move to Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk.

And the Camarillo State staff continued making their own moves to other hospitals, new careers, early retirement.

By summer’s end, only a skeleton crew of 25 will remain to cut grass, mend pipes, douse fires and preserve the sprawling campus of Spanish-style buildings for the next tenant--perhaps a state university--to take over.

Nita Vera sagged against fellow psychiatric technician Carolyn Ford and cried.

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She wondered aloud whether the next slew of hospitals and facilities will treat her patients as carefully.

“Eighteen years,” Vera said. “We’ve worked here 18 years. They told us the hospital was going to close, but we never realized. . . .”

Ford hugged her.

“Even when they said it was closing, we said, ‘No, it will not close,’ ” Ford said. “We don’t understand it, and the clients don’t understand it.”

Said Vera: “It’s a big mistake. They won’t realize until later how big a mistake it is.” Ford added, “I hope the patients get treated with dignity, as they were here.”

The patients themselves seemed unsure what to expect.

“It’s kind of sad,” said one boy, crammed into a van with five fellow patients for transfer to Metropolitan State Hospital. “It’s beautiful scenery out here, and when we go to Metro, it’ll be all industrial.”

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Another teen added: “The weeping willows are a nice part of the scenery. It’s very restful to be able to sleep out under the trees.”

How did they know about Metro?

“We’ve seen photos,” the first boy said ominously.

“And we’ve heard horrible descriptions from people,” offered the second.

But Bobbie King, a shift lead nurse for Camarillo State’s children and adolescents unit, said she and several colleagues will also transfer to Metropolitan to continue working with the boys.

“This was an excellent program,” King said wistfully, looking over the campus where she has worked since 1963. “I can remember when it was a top educational facility for children who were mentally disabled. We’ve had people come from all over the country to work with these children and adolescents.”

She added, “I think we would all like to have had it stay open.”

On Nov. 1, 1936, Camarillo State Hospital opened in a clutch of white, tile-roofed buildings nestled on 350 acres of farmland on the Oxnard Plain. Its first 410 psychiatric patients were ferried in by train from hospitals all over the state.

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By its 1954 peak, the hospital housed 7,266 psychiatric patients, treating the most violent ones with primitive methods--the best of the day--such as restraints, ice-water baths and electroshock therapy.

But the hospital evolved, driven by its own research and the nationwide patients-rights movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, from a long-term crowded asylum to a short-term, multiuse hospital.

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In 1967, Camarillo State began treating developmentally disabled patients too, using occupational therapy in simple jobs that engaged them, paid them and improved their self-esteem.

UCLA researchers at the hospital pioneered the use of Thorazine and other early psychotropic drugs that calmed patients’ symptoms. They perfected newer medications such as Risperidone, which can help patients function clearly without numbing them to the outside world.

And Camarillo State’s teachers and clinicians developed courses that sought to give developmentally disabled and mentally ill patients the skills they need to function outside the state hospital system.

By Tuesday morning, nearly all of it was gone.

Laborers had already muscled all the furniture out to moving vans.

Psychiatric technicians had packed the board games and gurneys, basketballs and leather restraints into boxes that now lined the psychiatric ward halls.

Custodial workers were mopping the last scuffed linoleum floors beneath the vaulted day-room ceilings where thousands of people once lived only because they could not care for themselves.

Ruth Grant packed up her computer amid bright pastel drawings done by her developmentally disabled students.

“It saddens me to see that, after 61 years, this place has to close,” said Grant, a seven-year veteran of Camarillo State who hopes to launch a CD-ROM development business at home in Oxnard. “We had a good program going.”

In the courtyard of the skilled-nursing wing sat Richard, 64, chewing a mint.

The last of Camarillo State’s psychiatric patients, Richard watched psychiatric technicians load his fellow patients into vans.

And he waited for a ride, sorting through his thoughts on the final moments of Camarillo State, where he had been treated for mental illness, on and off, since the 1960s.

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He remembered visits from presidents and movie stars. He remembered playing on Camarillo State’s golf range and bowling alley, watching movies in its theater.

And he fondly remembered working--fixing sprinklers with the grounds crew, washing dishes in the kitchens, driving a tractor on Camarillo State’s farmland.

“I feel real bad about it,” said Richard, who plans to stay with his guardian in Los Angeles until he can find more permanent housing. “It used to be a good place.”


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