PORTLAND, Maine — Karen Percival started working at the Barron Center just two years after it opened, and even in a new facility in the final decades of the 20th century, dark perceptions about public hospitals lingered.
Percival, now the center’s director as the institution celebrates its 30th year, started out taking admissions.
“I got phone calls [from people who said], ‘My mom needs a nursing home — but she thinks it’s a poor farm,’” she recalled.
Percival is pleased to say that old-time assumptions about city hospitals, passed down from 19th century practices of using the buildings to not only heal poor patients but also chain up and starve law-breakers, have dispersed by now. And she’s proud of whatever role the highly touted Barron Center might have played in constructing a new reputation for municipal health care over the past three decades.
“It is a high-quality, resident-centered, mission-driven facility and it’s just amazing,” said Douglas Gardner, head of Portland’s Department of Health and Human Services and former Barron Center director.
The Brighton Avenue Barron Center is the last municipal hospital in the state of Maine, but rather than a dying breed, Portland officials prefer to characterize the facility as the most advanced link in the city’s health care evolutionary chain.
“The breadth of services we provide, from long-term geriatric care to specialty care to our short-term rehabilitation unit, is really unique,” Gardner, who said the center hovers steadily around 95 percent capacity, said. “The city’s commitment has been around for hundreds of years, from the Barron Center going back to the public nurses that worked on [tuberculosis].”
The Barron Center is a 219-bed facility notable for including on its campus one of the nation’s first units devoted to patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
History of Portland city hospitals
When constructed in 1981 — and opened in 1982 — for a price of $5 million, the Barron Center replaced the Portland City Hospital, which was 80 years old and failing to meet state and federal structural standards.
The new center was named for Matthew and Evelyn Barron, longtime director and nurse, respectively, at the predecessor city hospital.
It is the Barrons who are credited with the first and perhaps most thorough cleansing of public perceptions of public hospitals. Gardner suggested the couple advocated for a more sensitive approach to patients in the city hospital, replacing the impersonal touch used in the decades before their arrival.
“Matt and Evelyn Barron were instrumental in moving the care to the place it is today — high quality, high efficiency and high compassion,” Gardner said.
Predecessors to Portland City Hospital included 19th century Alms Houses, crude mashups combining the duties of local jails and health care facilities for the poor and disabled.
According to a 1993 paper on the history of city health care for the poor written by Brenda Pinette, the Alms House era was replaced in the 1870s by the construction of Greely Hospital, immediately taxed by outbreaks of so-called “ship fever” and smallpox.
From 1902 to 1904, the side-by-side Farrington Hospital and Boothby Home were built on Brighton Avenue.
“By the end of [World War II], both facilities were overcrowded and there were questions of mismanagement,” wrote Pinette, adding that the city’s efforts to fix the public health care problems involved merging the two under the title of Portland City Hospital and direction of Barron in 1946.
It’s this roughly 150-year period of municipal health care history before the arrival of Matthew Barron as director that blackened the city hospital’s reputation in the minds of some right up until Percival’s early years at the Barron Center.
The Barron Center today
In fairness to the old predecessor facilities, Percival said, acceptable practices in the health care field are constantly evolving. Even seemingly common sense or harmless practices used at the Barron Center in the 1980s, such as hooking a patient’s wheelchair to a handrail to keep it and the patient from inadvertently rolling away from their room, are now considered improper procedures.
The Barron Center, she said, is still evolving in its 30th year.
“When I first started here, no one had an electric wheelchair,” Percival said. “There’s an enormous amount of equipment we have now that we never had before.”
The center director said she foresees the facility needing to accommodate more requests by patients to be surrounded by personal technology, such as laptops and smartphones, as elderly patients become more tech savvy in the coming years.
Percival said the center is also using its 30th anniversary to renew calls for volunteers at the site, keeping in step with the facility’s focus on its patients’ quality of life.
“For three decades, the city’s Barron Center has provided compassionate care to thousands of residents,” said Mayor Michael Brennan in a statement. “This mission honors a tradition started more than two centuries ago to care for the community’s vulnerable. A fitting anniversary gift from the community would be to honor this tradition and spend some time getting to know one of the center’s residents.”
Individuals to play board games, carry on conversations with or play live music for those receiving nursing care at the site are all welcome, Percival said, not just people with nursing backgrounds. Volunteers willing to teach classes on gardening or crafts, or just sitting and sharing stories, can call Director of Recreation and Volunteers Tonya Heskett at 541-6557, according to a city announcement.
“All residents, no matter where they are in life, respond to music, so there are a lot of music programs here,” Percival said. “I really think Portland has always taken care of our people who don’t have anywhere else to go. But it wasn’t always about ‘quality of life’ — that’s what’s changed.”