This place was their life

April 2, 2014

David Wood reports on the sudden closure of a Western Massachusetts hospital.

RAIN AND grey clouds hung over the Northern Berkshires in Massachusetts on the morning of March 28. The last ambulance was departing from the closing doors of North Adams Regional Hospital (NARH).

Carrying on board the neonatal department's last patient, a premature newborn, the ambulance crew departed, with lights and sirens, for the city of Springfield, where the closest accepting hospital awaited their arrival--an hour and a half away.

Along snaking roads through the Berkshires, littered with springtime potholes, the baby's new family would also travel to reunite with their youngest child. In Springfield, they rejoiced again in seeing the newborn, but this time far from home--and without the promise of a place to stay.

Their journey is a curious one. Back in North Adams, there is no natural disaster. At the hospital, the power is still on, supplies are in full, and the staff is ready to work. In fact, key departments like the ER remained operating and staff continued showing up for work.

North Adams Regional Hospital
North Adams Regional Hospital

So why was NARH, a running hospital since 1885, closing down? Crying bankruptcy, the hospital's management gave the town and staff just three days' notice before slamming shut the doors. The state's Department of Public Health requires 90 days for such an action. Management didn't seem to care.

An old New England town of chipped red bricks and rusted steel, North Adams was already hurting. Factory closures from generations past left only polluted rivers, and the recent Great Recession only intensified the toll. The NARH's closing has now killed 550 more jobs, another handful of salt poured onto an open wound.

On top of the economic loss, residents will now have to travel almost an hour away to the closest emergency room. Still further away are other health care services, like the nearest neonatal intensive care unit. As one NARH nurse, Tara Wiles, explained:

I've lived in North Adams my whole life. This is where my family is from. I did my clinical rotations at NARH while in nursing school and started working here over a year ago. Until today, I didn't realize how close we were as coworkers. It's been sad, but inspiring to see us all come together.

I feel fortunate in a way. I'm new in my career and can move on. But a lot of the staff had been working here for 20, 30, 40 years. Many of them had never been unemployed. They went straight from school to this hospital. This place was their life and the loss is shattering. I can only imagine the trickle-down effect this will have in our community.

THE AMBULANCE that left the hospital on the morning of March 28 passed a crowd of angry protesters. NARH staff, community members and nurses from as far away as Boston stood together, united and huddled in the rain. Before their eyes, they watched their hospital torn away.

A moving truck took the place of the ambulance, coming to transport hospital equipment--probably for liquidation. Protestors surrounded the truck to prevent it from loading. Although police pushed the crowd back, the truck left shortly afterward, still empty.

"It'll be back," one person yelled, "probably in the middle of the night."

The crowd parted for a nurse leaving the hospital doors. She was sobbing and barely able to stand, but found strength to push forward the wheelchair of her last patient, who she helped into the car of a waiting relative. The crowd clapped, many driven to tears themselves. They lifted signs. One read, "When your emergency room closes, it's a state of emergency!"

The night before, workers had also stood outside. Only then, it was in front of a bank--where they waited in line to cash their last paychecks, all anxious they might bounce, since the hospital's money seemed to be disappearing as quickly as their jobs.

Now, like swarming bees around a struck nest, protesters chanted, "Whose hospital? Our hospital! Save our hospital!" Speakers encouraged the crowd to call Gov. Deval Patrick's office and demand emergency funding be released to keep the hospital open. No response came from his office.

Only later would they learn that he was 40 minutes away at a campaign fundraiser for State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier. Her campaign slogan? "A voice for Pittsfield families." In the days preceding the closure, and now even while so close to NARH, the governor's voice remained silent--his mouth only open enough to raise money for a fellow politician.

After being pushed out of the hospital's lobby by police, nurses crowed into the cafeteria, vowing to occupy it until the hospital reopened. On March 27, at the request of state Attorney General Martha Coakley, herself from Pittsfield, a state superior court judge issued an order keeping the hospital's ER open for an additional seven days. But on Friday, the injunction was lifted, after Coakley reportedly took management's word that the ER could not be properly staffed. Police evacuated personnel and occupiers.

Nurse Kerrie Brassard, coming straight from the ER, was quick to respond. Speaking to the cafeteria crowd, she explained, "We have a physician, we have a physician's assistant, we have nurses, there are respiratory therapists there. We are properly staffed in the ER, and we are caring for patients!"

Hearing management's lies, nurses demanded the hospital's board be confronted. After a public discussion, the crowd decided to march to the boardroom, where hospital administrators were meeting. They first marched to the front lobby, but were met by police. Donna Stern, a nurse from nearby Franklin Hospital demanded to be let inside. An officer replied, "We can't let you in. This is private property."

Stern shouted back, "We work these hospitals. This is our property!" Another nurse directed the crowd to a side door. As more police moved in, protesters ran to the door and filed into a stairwell. Finding an open door, the crowd flowed in. A final line of hospital security stood guarding the boardroom hallway. When nurses demanded entrance, they refused--but with a little patience, the protesters pushed through.

Like a breaking dam, they flowed in, gathering outside the locked boardroom--through the windows in the doors, administrators could be seen talking. One could only imagine their conversation--perhaps more calls and lies to Coakley's office; or their plans to liquidate hospital equipment and secure their golden parachutes; or how to best deal with the press and the angry public.

One nurse began pounding on the boardroom door, shouting, "Stop the lying! You're breaking the law!" The crowd began chanting, "Community hospital under attack! Stand up, fight back!"

Police weren't far behind and pushed their way in. Hospital administrators agreed to speak with four representatives for 20 minutes--an insult to those who spent their lives working at NARH.

THE CROWD went back to the cafeteria, promised they could use it for gathering. In one corner of the room, people put together a makeshift retirement party for a nurse late in her career. A card went around for people to sign. Coworkers hugged, wishing each other the best. But the promise of the cafeteria also became a lie. Later in the day, police evicted the protesters and surrounded the hospital with red tape that read, "Danger, do not enter."

The next day, the community gathered at a church, where they reflected on their loss. The mood was of a funeral, the feeling surreal. Still in shock, they mustered their strength and continued discussing plans to get their hospital back. How does this happen in a country claiming such wealth?

Friday morning began with a newborn leaving North Adams for Springfield. When the child returns home, what kind of world will they grow up in? Far from here, in a Virginia shipyard, the U.S. recently launched a $14 billion aircraft carrier. Its creation was in the name of keeping the country "safe." Yet in places like the Berkshires, hospitals are closing without a peep from the governor.

Communities are left to fend for themselves as essential services and safety nets fall apart below us. As Tara Wiles put it, "We have to come together and fight for our rights. I stand up for the 99 Percent. We shouldn't allow the 1 percent to take what's ours!"

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