Crotched Mt. Specialty Hospital shuttering leaves void in statewide treatment

  • Elizabeth Kenney, who sustained a brain injury when she was 26, recounts her recovery process. Staff photo by Nicholas Handy

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Thursday, September 28, 2017 10:20AM

Not long after Elizabeth Kenney woke up from a months-long coma after she and a group of her friends were plowed over by a car while walking home from a bar in Oregon, she was transported to the Crotched Mountain Specialty Hospital in Greenfield.

Kenney was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury after the accident and said she needed “serious rehab.”

“Crotched is a little hazy,” she said of her nearly three-month stint at the rehab unit. “It was a lot of physical therapy, sitting with different people, meeting with different people. Apparently, I couldn’t feed myself, I couldn’t dress myself.”

Kenney was lucky in some ways. Her dad, Robin, who has a consultation practice aimed at making services available to people with developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injuries, had been working in the field for decades before his daughter experienced the injury. Robin personally knew Don Shumway, then CEO and President of Crotched Mountain and called him up after his daughter’s accident. Robin said were able to make space for her at the specialty hospital right away.

It’s not always that easy though, he said.

“It’s very hard,” Robin said of finding long-term rehabilitation for people with traumatic brain injuries.

And it’s getting harder, he said.

The specialty hospital that aided in Kenney’s recovery shuttered at the end of August, citing nearly $20 million in losses over the last five years. The announcement left about 30 patients in need of alternative care, according to a press release. David Johnson, director of marketing at Crotched Mountain, said the last patients were dispatched from the specialty hospital on Aug. 21.

The specialty hospital has been open since the 1980s, treating patients with acute needs like traumatic brain injuries.

Each year an estimated 1.7 million people in America sustain a brain injury, and in New Hampshire, there are currently more than 15,000 people living with a brain injury or stroke, according to the Brain Injury Association of New Hampshire.

“The closing is a real loss,” Steve Wade, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of New Hampshire, said about the specialty hospital closing. “It creates a gap in the continuum of care.”

He said after a person sustains a brain injury, a common path to follow includes intensive care at a general hospital until a patient is ready to move into acute long-term rehabilitation, like the former specialty hospital. Wade said, hopefully, a patient can be matriculated back into society after rehabilitation.

Already, Wade said, it can be difficult to find rehabilitation units in the state. A list on the association’s website lists about 40 brain injury programs, although not all are long-term rehabilitation facilities and many are out of state.

Wade said the announcement of Crotched closing its specialty hospital also comes on the heels of Lakeview Neurorehabilitation Center in Effingham closing its doors in 2015 after the state found it was neglecting its patients. That means there are now even fewer beds in the state, he said.

He fears the closure of rehabilitation centers could mean brain injury patients are kept in acute care for too long, patients could be placed in a nursing home without specific care needed to treat brain injuries, or that patients will have to seek out-of-state care.

John Richards, who is also a member of the state’s Brain Injury Association and is a brain injury survivor, said he worries about the commute for patients.

“That’s an issue because one of the best things to do is to keep the family involved and you can’t do that if they are far away,” Richards said.

After Crotched, Kenney moved back in with her parents where she continued her recovery. 

She was put on antidepressants not long after she moved in with her parents.

“My dad said when you came to live with us you would wear dirty sweatpants every day, you wouldn’t shower, you never put your contacts in, I didn't see you smile, nothing would make you happy,” Kenney said.

She went on antidepressants and just days later, she said, everything changed.  

“I went on the antidepressants and two days later he’s (her dad) like you started showering. He said, ‘I remember the first day I saw you smile, it was one of the best days,’” she said.

It’s been a number of years since the injury, and while things have improved over time, she’s still not the same. 

“You wake up from your coma a very different person in a world you now see very differently,” she said. “I used to be a very upbeat, happy, trusting person and now I just have an anger, and I don’t trust people.”

One of the hardest parts has been relationships. 

“Some people step up and call, they want to see you and be with you, but some people don’t want to talk about it. You’re not the same person they knew, they say, ‘I don’t know this Liz and that hurts,’” she said. 

Kenney said she hasn’t spoken to two of her best friends from before the accident in years. One just got married recently and a group of her friends were all invited, except for her.

“It’s hard for some people to get to know the new you,” Kenney said.

Robin said the most important thing is that his daughter is alive and the family moves from that point.

“What happened to her changes the course of a person’s life. Much has been restored to Elizabeth and in many ways she is her old self, but not completely,” he said. 

The question for her family and friends is how they accept and embrace this new person into their lives. 

“It’s difficult for people to shed the expectation or the hope that this person, in this case, my daughter can be completely restored,” Robin said. 

These days, Kenney lives with her boyfriend in a place in Peterborough.

While she has autonomy, she still can’t hold down a full-time job. She’s more irritable than she used to be but is far better off than many people who sustain traumatic brain injuries.

That was in big part because of the care.

“I can speak both as a parent and a professional, I believe [Elizabeth] got good care and as an advocate of brain injuries, I mourn the loss of Crotched Mountain (Specialty Hospital).”

Abby Kessler can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 234 or akessler@ledgertranscript.com.