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'An accepting community'

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By David Giuliani

I haven’t taken a test in quite awhile. But I was required to take one before touring the state hospital earlier this month.

That’s right. To comply with federal medical privacy laws, the hospital wants to make sure no private patient information gets in the public’s hands.

As such, hospital employee Manuel Romero went through a couple of dozen pages worth of information about the laws and then asked that I take a test on the information he’d just given me.

I didn’t count all of my wrong answers, but I had my share.

The point of the lesson was simple: I was not to reveal any private medical information that I may happen upon.

Despite my less-than-stellar performance, Troy Jones, the hospital’s administrator, gave me a tour anyway —part of what he calls the organization’s effort to become more open with the community.

I’ve been working at the Optic for nearly four years, but I had never set foot in the hospital — known formally as the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute. I’ve written a number of stories about the organization, but until recently, hospital officials weren’t allowed to talk with the media. I had to contract a PR person at the state Health Department in Santa Fe for information.

Apparently, Jones, who took the helm in July, has persuaded his state superiors to allow him to talk with local media.

Jones is no stranger to the hospital; he’s worked there for more than a decade.

“Las Vegas is probably the most accepting community of the mentally ill that I’ve ever seen. That’s why I’m here,” he told me.

He’s in charge of a big staff — nearly 1,000 employees — which makes the hospital Las Vegas’ largest employer. Indeed, it’s the state Health Department’s biggest facility.

Every two weeks, the hospital issues paychecks worth a total of more than $1 million — a big impact on the community, Jones said.

• • •

Our first stop on the tour was what is known as Community Based Services, which is on Friedman Avenue. This is essentially the hospital’s outpatient arm, with around 2,000 clients. It’s the old St. Anthony’s Hospital, and is is much bigger than it appears from the street.

The hospital tries to help clients get back to their home communities after they leave. But Jones said many choose to live in Las Vegas because they want to be close to the services of the state hospital. They often live in boarding homes around town.

At Community Based Services, clients get the services they need, Jones said. It has vocational programs and classes to teach job-search skills. There are talent shows, including the hospitals’ version of “American Idol.” But Jones assured me that the judges take a positive approach, nothing like the mean-spirited judge, Simon, on the national show.

The next part of the tour was the farm on the other side of Hot Springs Boulevard from the hospital. Not many people know about this place, Jones said. He took me down a dirt road that I had never noticed before. It ended at the Gallinas River, where there is catch-and-release fishing. Here, clients grow corn and other vegetables.

It’s a scenic spot, and I can see why it would be popular.

Jones also took me to the Meadows nursing home. The hospital has gotten money to demolish this home and build a new one that will look less institutional than Meadows, with its low ceilings and cinderblock walls.

Residents in the current nursing home don’t have bathrooms in their rooms, but they will in the new one.

Meadows and Ponderosa, the other part of the hospital that serves as a nursing home, take those people who need long-term care who have nowhere else to go. Most of them have secondary diagnoses of mental illness.

Once the hospital gets the new nursing home, Jones said, the Ponderosa building may be used for a program for brain injuries or some other unmet need in New Mexico.

• • •

Probably the most well-known function of the hospital is the forensics division. This is the area where you see the fenced-off, netted area where men play basketball at certain times.

As of two weeks ago, the division had 60 men and seven women, and there is no mixing of the genders. They are accused of committing felonies, but none of them have been convicted yet. Judges have ordered them to go to the hospital to determine if they are competent to stand trial.

I didn’t have any contact with the patients, but I’m told their rooms are like dorms, with state-issued furniture. I did, however, go to the maximum security area. We went into one of the rooms, which can only be described as cells. At the end of the hallway, I could hear a couple of guys in cells yelling; they were calling for assistance from a psychiatric technician.

Paul Bagwell, who’s in charge of forensics, told me that people can stay in the maximum security area for a few hours or several months. They’re there as long as officials figure that they’re a danger to themselves and others.

“It (maximum security area) looks like a jail and it has a correctional feel,” Bagwell said.

The patients are encouraged to take part in activities and take classes such as anger management.

“We offer a wide range of activities; it’s all voluntary,” Bagwell said.

• • •

One of the surprising things about the state hospital is that it’s much bigger than it appears from Hot Springs Boulevard.

Behind the old buildings facing Hot Springs are many relatively newer ones — many of which are for the psychiatric component of the hospital.

Jones said the hospital encourages families to be involved in their loved ones’ lives, but sadly, that’s often not the case.

“Their family members are often hands off after dealing with the mental illness for so many years because it’s so tiresome and draining. On the psych side, you don’t see a lot of family involvement,” he said. “It’s an understandable reality.”

At the very western end of the 300-acre campus is a heavily secured compound for 21 sex offenders. On the front gate is a sign, “STOP,” standing for Sex Offender Treatment Program (though officials admit the acronym isn’t exact).

All in all, Jones said, many in the community don’t know much about the state hospital, insisting that he wants to change that. And he said he has faith in the staff.

“I would put any of my family members here because of the care they would get,” he said. “This is the best-kept secret in New Mexico.”

As for the employees, he told me during the tour that he considers them his family.

When we returned to Jones’ office, one of his assistants asked both of us to go into the conference room, where a meeting was taking place. He said he didn’t want to interrupt, but his assistant insisted.

When he came in, two dozen employees standing around a table surprised him with a birthday cake and sang him “Happy Birthday” in Spanish and English. He blushed and then jokingly told them they would be getting their pink slips.

I had been on a tour with Jones for more than two hours, and he hadn’t told me that he would be turning 42 in a couple of days. After the singing, he said the birthday celebration proved his point — the state hospital is a family.

David Giuliani is managing editor of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 425-6796 or dgiuliani@lasvegasoptic.com.