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Nine years ago, then-Gov. Gary Locke spoke bravely of tearing down Lakewood's gloomy Western State Hospital, the state's biggest mental institution other than the state

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De-Nesting Cuckoo

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Nine years ago, then-Gov. Gary Locke spoke bravely of tearing down Lakewood's gloomy Western State Hospital, the state's biggest mental institution other than the state capitol building, and replacing it with a modern treatment facility. Instead, he cut its budget. Now 136 years old, it has been repaired and repainted and expanded, through it remains a monument to loony-bin history. Ice-pick lobotomies and first-resort electro shock thrived there; actress Frances Farmer was "treated" there. Untold mistakes and mysteries are buried there. And, with the mental health system's chronic funding shortfalls, it still houses those who shouldn't be there.

It hadn't been much better in Oregon, but yesterday, down in Salem, they began to do something about their Cuckoo's Nest. A track hoe took its first bite out of an obsolete and unsafe three-story wing of Oregon State Hospital, and a contractor will turn it into rubble over the next two weeks. Remembered as the backdrop for the Jack Nicholson movie based on Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, it will be replaced by a 620-bed, $280 million facility. Oregon's change of heart resulted in part because OSH no longer could be neglected. Two Oregonian editorial writers, by reporting rather than merely opining, won a 2006 Pulitzer Prize for reminding the public what it was underwriting. Worth re-reading, especially in Olympia, is this:

Eva York died in a bathtub in 1896 at the Oregon Asylum for the Insane. After an inquest, which absolved the hospital staff of any blame, no one claimed her corpse, so she was buried in the asylum cemetery and forgotten. Eighteen years later Eva's remains were exhumed, cremated, placed in a copper urn and forgotten all over again. Today the corroding canister containing her ashes sits on a plain pine shelf in what's called the "Cremains Room" at the 122-year-old Salem institution, now known as the Oregon State Hospital. ...If Eva York is a symbol of Oregon neglect, the hospital itself its physical hulk is a full-blown metaphor. The tub that she died in is still there, gathering mold and rat droppings in an abandoned wing that's creepier than any haunted house one might imagine. Occupied spaces of the hospital are cheerier only by comparison. They comprise a foreboding, ramshackle collection of additions to the original 1883 structure along with several decrepit satellite buildings, the newest of which is more than a half-century old.

Patients spend their hours locked in jam-packed day rooms connected by long, dreary corridors to their prisonlike sleeping quarters, crammed with more bodies than they were designed for. They gaze out windows covered with oppressive security screens, and they stare at visitors coming and going on balky, creaky old elevators. No wonder the makers of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the Oscar-winning movie based on Ken Kesey's novel, chose to film it at the Oregon State Hospital. It was a fright 30 years ago, and the place still looks the same today...

On Monday, when the 2005 Oregon Legislature convenes, all 90 members should mark May 16 on their desk calendars. That's the deadline for presentation of this [new hospital] blueprint. It will likely call for a years-long project requiring tens of millions of dollars to build a smaller, modern hospital and an enlarged network of community mental health centers that would be less costly to operate and more effective at treating patients. Every legislator must commit right now to moving Oregon mental health care out of the dark shadows of its 19th-century roots.

 
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