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Lakin Hospital History

LAKIN — William Faulker once wrote, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” For Lakin Hospital, its past has never really gone away, though some might argue it has been forgotten.

Founded by an act of the West Virginia Legislature in 1919, Lakin Hospital opened its doors on Feb. 1, 1926, with a purpose of, “the reception and treatment of blacks suffering from mental and nervous disorders.” The hospital, then named the ‘Lakin State Hospital for the Colored Insane,’ served patients from across the state. Although the institution’s original name reflected the era of segregation, it was a nontraditional facility with an all black staff, including administrators, and was one of what is believed to be only two all black mental health facilities east of the Mississippi River.

Larry Moore, of Mason, served as a social worker at Lakin from the late 1960s until 2004 and became not only an employee but historical advocate for the facility.

Moore described Lakin’s beginnings as unique, explaining, “At a time when the vast majority of psychiatric care for black Americans was markedly substandard, Lakin seems to have been a serious attempt to accomplish the ‘equal’ portion of the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine. ‘Care’ in most other settings consisted of minimal service in inadequate facilities by white staff who were often highly prejudiced.”

In 1951, a then 18-year old Edith Ross, currently of Point Pleasant, left her home in Fayette County, to find a job and ended up at Lakin Hospital as a psychiatric aide. Edith wasn’t just thrown into her job caring for patients — she received six months of training, earning a salary of $90 a month which included meals. In spite of, or because of, local housing being practically nonexistent for blacks, all employees lived on the hospital grounds. Before employee dormitories were built in 1952, Edith’s room was just off of the patients’ ward, and at the time, she might awaken to find a patient walking the halls outside her room which she laughs about now but back then found a little unsettling.

“You got used to it,” she laughed. “Course, it scared you to death sometimes.”

In 1952, male and female dormitories were built to house employees, including staff, administrators and doctors. With employees living on the grounds, Edith said if a coworker needed help with patients there was always someone around to do so which also meant employees technically worked 24 hours, many of those hours without pay.

For all practical purposes, the patients had nowhere to go but Lakin, as did the staff. So, both made the best of their situations and coexisted. Edith said when she first arrived, many patients helped maintain the hospital by cleaning the buildings and working in the laundry.

“If it hadn’t been for the patients, that hospital would’ve never made it,” Edith said. “The patients cleaned that place up like a hotel.”

Patients also worked on Lakin’s farm which not only raised dairy cows, hogs and chickens, but grew vegetables used in the hospital’s cannery. At one time, Lakin had its own store and post office as well as beautician and barber services, shoe repair, a seamstress, minister, auto shop, pharmacy, medical lab and ambulance services. So, in essence, Lakin was its own self-sufficient city, and staff and patients didn’t have to go into town — because they were their own town.

This picture of self-sufficiency contradicts stereotypes of what living in a psychiatric hospital in the 1950s might’ve been like with images of patients locked away in padded rooms. Edith disagrees with these images being applied to what life was like at Lakin.

“We had some patients who were locked down to a point. There was just some where there wasn’t any hope for them,” Edith said. “But, a lot of the patients had a lot going for them.”

As for those “rumors” about the hospital, Moore said, “I won’t go into some of the wild and weird rumors about cages, shackles, etc., other than to state, without reserve, that they were/are totally unfounded.”

Perhaps one of the darker periods at Lakin occurred not only at Lakin but across the country when the lobotomy era emerged in psychiatric facilities. In West Virginia, the lobotomy era is said to have dawned in 1948 and continued though the mid-1950s. Some records indicate Dr. Walter Freeman, who pioneered the transorbital or “ice pick” lobotomy, performed about 150 lobotomies on patients at Lakin during this era.

The “ice pick” lobotomy involved sedating the patient with shock treatments, drawing the upper eyelid away from the eyeball, exposing the tear duct, then driving the sharp point of an ice pick through the orbital bone plate into the frontal lobe of the brain. The pick was then moved around, disconnecting the nerve fibers in the brain’s frontal lobe which determines who a person is — i.e., their personality.

Edith worked with Freeman who she described as a “cold” man.

“He’d do one and move on, saying ‘next, next’ and they’d roll them in and roll them out,” Edith remembers, saying she suspects he did around 70 of the procedures in one day.

Edith said lobotomies were only performed on Lakin patients where there was “no hope.” She added she did see some improve from the procedure in a time before psychotropic drugs, allowing patients to be returned to their families, some for better, some for worse.

“Some left and never came back, some did,” Edith remembered, saying she remembered two that died from the procedure.

Described as a “zealot” by some, Freeman’s life and work at state mental hospitals in West Virginia will be featured in a documentary airing this fall and produced by Ark Media, Brooklyn, N.Y. for PBS’ nationally broadcast program, “The American Experience.”

Kate Walker, associate producer for Ark Media, said of Lakin’s role in the documentary, “We use Lakin as an example of a hospital where Freeman frequently visited, operated and taught the lobotomy procedure. Hospitals across the country were facing some of the same problems and challenges in caring for their patients that the staff was facing at Lakin. Because we found someone who had actually observed Freeman operate at Lakin and who was willing to share his story, we chose to develop this example.”

As for what she’s learned from this uniquely American experience, Walker emphasized, “What I am taking away from the experience of working on this film is our absolute need to care for every aspect of human society; however, it is tremendously difficult to put oneself in another person’s shoes, whether today’s shoes or the shoes of someone sixty years ago. We can’t exactly know what someone is thinking, nor can we assume. The best thing we can do is listen with as open a mind as possible.”

As it did when it first opened, changing minds is a challenge Lakin Hospital faces even now.

“People still consider us a mental health facility even though we’ve tried to dispel that,” said Brenda Shuler, acting chief executive officer for Lakin Hospital who began with the facility in 1969 as a typist.

Annette Hill, program director for the hospital agreed, saying she still receives calls requesting beds on an alcohol treatment ward that no longer exists and hasn’t existed for some time. The facility began making the transition from psychiatric to nursing care in the late 1970s, achieving its intermediate care facility status in 1984 which means it could provide nursing care to adults.

Despite their differences, perhaps one of the few resemblances the latest incarnation as Lakin Hospital has to its predecessor is there are still no “typical clients” on the grounds. Shuler said the facility serves residents with Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injuries and strokes. Patients range from the young to elderly. The facility has 136 beds, prepares 340 meals a day and processes approximately 1,700 pounds of laundry a day. Like its predecessor, the facility offers a variety of services, including an in-house barber and beautician, vision, dental and podiatry care and pastoral services among others.

Another similarity includes the fact the hospital is still a state agency with its budget derived from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. However, perhaps the biggest similarity between the past and present Lakin Hospital, is the human element.

“We are very proud of our facility and protective of our residents,” Shuler added.

Pride in the current incarnation of Lakin Hospital begs the question about the existence of pride in its past which Moore embraces.

“I do find it frustrating that political correctness has led to many years of efforts to deny the history and legacy of Lakin, as if cleaning historical references.” Moore said. “Such as removal of the historical marker which became broken and was ‘taken for repair’ at some point after we declined to remove it and has never been replaced, will change the fact that racial prejudice and discrimination did actually exist in West Virginia, and was a factor in every aspect of the lives of West Virginia residents, just as it was in the rest of the United States of America.”

As for Edith, she retired from Lakin Hospital in 1988 after she’d seen everything from lobotomies, to the introduction and benefits of psychotropic drugs, to patients being rezoned to other counties, to integration of a staff and resident population that went from predominately black to white, to psychiatric services phased out along with the adolescent care unit where she was a supervisor.

Edith briefly left Lakin from 1972 to 1976 when she remarried, and when asked why she returned or better yet, why she stayed, she said, “Lakin was like family.”

These days, that statement is taken literally with Edith’s daughter Phyllis Penn having worked as Lakin Hospital’s switchboard operator for 38 years now. Penn, a second generation employee, has been at the facility longer than her mother.

However, if you have plans on driving to Lakin to see the historic hospital you’ll have to look at little further into history books because the current Lakin Hospital operates in a building erected in 1974. The original hospital, known as Building A, and its corresponding Building B which was built in 1927, are now gone.

One of the hospital’s oldest existing buildings is the Office Building which remains on the grounds though it is only used for storage by the nearby Lakin Correctional Facility for Woman. The Office Building, erected around the late-1950’s is said to have housed not only offices but been a place for major and minor surgery and private pay patients. The Dietary Building which sits behind the Office Building was erected in 1958 and is still in use.

Usefulness in talking about Lakin’s past is apparent to both Edith and Moore.

Moore added, “The Lakin school and hospital buildings, and the historical markers for them, are gone. I regret they were not preserved as reminders of where we were, what we tried, and how far we have come, as we look to where we need to go from here.”

Gallipolis Daily Tribune - Lakin Hospital


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