Community discusses impact of NARH closing

When Robbin Simonetti heard that there was an “urgent” meeting for all staff members at the North Adams Regional Hospital (NARH) last March, she never suspected the announcement that would follow.

“I didn’t think a hospital could just up and close,” Simonetti, a nurse who worked at the hospital for 30 years, said.

Simonetti was one of five speakers who shared her story last Thursday night to a sizable crowd of students and community members in Dodd House as part of a discussion about the hospital’s closing on March 28 of this year.

Steven Sheppard, professor of economics, spoke first, followed by Rick Spalding, chaplain to the College, Simonetti, Mike O’Brien, a former respiratory doctor at the hospital and Jim Lipa, a resident of North Adams whose wife worked at the hospital for a number of years. The event was organized by the Healing Hands Club, and began with a short introduction from the club’s leaders, Dylan Griswold ’15 and Taylor Jackvony ’16.

Healing Hands was founded this year with the intent of “reimagining the pre-med community [at the College],” Griswold said. The group wanted to spend the year focusing on a relevant community issue, and at the first meeting, juniors Olivia Meyerson ’16 and Isabel Hanson ’16 pitched that the club assist current efforts to address the closing of NARH.

The hospital closed on March 28 due to financial problems. Simonetti recounted that staff members were informed on a Tuesday, and by Friday of the same week the hospital had closed.

Describing this process, Lipa said, “The rug got pulled out from under us.” O’Brien asked students in the audience to imagine it this way: “Say you’re halfway through a semester,” he said. “And you’re told Williams is closing at week’s end.”

The hospital closing, however, doesn’t just affect the more than 500 employees who were left without a job in the wake of the hospital’s closing. Sheppard, who compiled a report on the economic impact of the hospital closing last spring, calculated that Berkshire County would lose roughly 790 full-time jobs in total and $93 million in output.

But the ramifications of the move on the community, Sheppard said, go beyond numbers.

“You don’t have a hospital as a make-work project,” he said. “It’s not just about jobs. This closure, if it remains closed, will result in one to two additional deaths per year in Berkshire County.” This, he said, “is a human issue.”

Spalding elaborated on this theme. He told the story of the two times he has had to go to NARH over the course of his tenure at the College, once with a faculty member and once with a student. The hospital, he said, provided the “expertise, care [and] diligence” to ensure that “life might continue.” Sitting there on those two nights, he recalled, he had never envisioned that there might come a day “when we couldn’t take for granted that umbrella of care.”

Thursday night’s event was only one example of the movement that has coalesced since the closing of NARH. O’Brien invited everyone present to join the effort. Reopening a hospital in North Adams, he said, will take the combined and sustained efforts of all the members of the local community. In the past, the hospital lacked this kind of leadership, but going forward, O’Brien wants to ensure that the hospital leadership “actually lives in the area and isn’t renting.” Simonetti agreed: “I was vested in the hospital,” she said, adding that the hospital’s chief executive officers, on the other hand, were not.

Concluding the event, Griswold asked Williams students to take this message to heart. Students, too, he said, are “part of a larger community [in which] health care does matter.” Student action, in concert with local efforts, is needed if the area is to “get us back to the hospital that this community needs.”