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News of replacement for First Hospital brings hope

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Nearly a year ago, families and vulnerable individuals in our area had the rug cruelly pulled out from under their lives.

On a bright summer day the Commonwealth Health System informed this community that First Hospital in Kingston would be closing in just under three months time.

The impending closure of inpatient mental health facilities naturally dominated the conversation, but after the initial shock set in the larger scope of this devastating news became clear: Along with the hospital we would be losing a range of related services.

“They include Community Counseling services, outpatient assessments, evaluation and treatment for individuals suffering from mental health disorders, intellectual disabilities or substance abuse disorders, outpatient substance abuse counseling, the Crisis Response and Recovery Center of NEPA which provided 24/7 access to individuals experiencing emotional or psychiatric crises,” stated Rep. Aaron Kaufer said at the time.

The stories we started hearing were heartbreaking, and the predictions were dire.

Jennifer Mickle-Symons of Larksville spoke about the services her teenage son was receiving from First Hospital, and how the only comparable option she knew of was in Tunkhannock.

Sandy Wazeter spoke about her son, Gerard, 32, who attended the Day Development Program at First Hospital, a structured program for adults with developmental disabilities.

“Gerard loves the program,” his mom said. “They take them into the community and they learn many life skills. It’s like a second home for them. And they love the staff, many of whom they have known for years. They all feel very comfortable here.”

Albert Travis, 56 of Wilkes-Barre, said he depended on several services offered through First Hospital.

“I’ve come a long way,” he said. “A lot of us have come a long way. They have kept me centered and settled. I can come in and talk to these people. The people here are like my family. We all have similar problems. It’s hard to change and even harder when you have a mental illness. We don’t want to split up.”

Despite petitions and demonstrations — and concerns raised by Kaufer and other lawmakers — the closure took effect as planned at the end of October.

Some other organizations, notably Geisinger, did step up with added services and offerings in the region. But the loss for many was real and acute.

Earlier this year we published a special series on mental health issues faced by students and young adults. One of the people we spoke with was Carol McGrane, program director at The Graham Academy, which offers special education for students with autism and behavioral challenges.

Students who needed referrals for serious inpatient care may have to travel long distances to receive the care they once would have received at First Hospital, she explained.

“They are going more to crisis situations in hospitals,” McGrane said. “Wilkes-Barre General Hospital is the first place where they are taken, and then the hospital will evaluate whether they need to be seen further. But they are going further out.”

Among the destinations: Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh.

“It’s very difficult,” McGrane said. “You can’t sit bedside in First Hospital like you used to.”

That is why Thursday’s announcement by Kaufer came as some of the best news we’ve heard all year: The hospital will reopen as Wyoming Valley Behavioral Health Hospital under new owners, and is expected to begin treating patients in October.

As Bill O’Boyle reported, the provider purchased the vacant building and is in the process of filing for state license with the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (OMHSAS) within the Department of Human Services.

Details about the provider and its services have yet to fully emerge, but there are real causes for optimism and relief.

No doubt this is the work of many hands, but the region’s legislative delegation — and in particular Kaufer, whose district includes the former First Hospital — have taken an active interest in the search for a successor. Their advocacy should be applauded.

I write as one whose family was affected by mental illness and the struggles of seeking treatment for a loved one. While that was decades ago in another state, the essentials remained true: Struggling to find the right care, struggling to get my father into care, and struggling to ensure he stayed there.

Knowing people whose families were directly affected by similar issues here and now, the closure of First Hospital was an unacceptable slap in the face for the region, an unconscionable loss to inflict on a community of this size.

Knowing that a replacement is on the way brings real hope.

For-profit Commonwealth Health Services said last year that it had “become increasingly difficult to maintain adequate staffing levels at the hospital,” citing the COVID-19 pandemic as a factor in the loss of team members and the struggle to recruit replacements.

Let’s all hope the new owners fare better in that regard.

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Roger DuPuis is news editor of the Times Leader.