MERIDEN — After learning the final patient had left the building, emergency room nurse Gerry Pierce and a colleague slowly rose from their chairs and said goodbye to Veterans Memorial Medical Center.
”It took a long time for us to get out of our seats,” Pierce said. “We both went out a little teary-eyed. There were hundreds of people who have crossed our paths over the years. It was very hard to look back and pull ourselves away.”
As the last employees to leave the Cook Avenue hospital on Sept. 28, 1998, Pierce and her colleague drove themselves across town to join their co-workers at the brand new MidState Medical Center on Lewis Avenue.
After the recent loss of her colleague, Pierce, Jim and Arlene Hamelin agreed the timing was right to do something special.
The trio are celebrating Midstate’s 20th anniversary with a reunion of former and present employees to share their memories, re-ignite old friendships, and make new ones. The informal event, which is not sponsored by MidState or its parent Hartford HealthCare, will be on Sept. 23 from 1 to 5 p.m. at the American Legion Post 45 pavilion, 835 Hanover Road.
Midstate and Hartford HealthCare are planning their own celebration of the milestone.
Pierce and the Hamelins collectively had more than 100 years of service time with Meriden-Wallingford Hospital and Veterans Memorial Hospital, which merged in 1990. In 1998, the entity became MidState Medical Center and moved to Lewis Avenue. The trio has since retired.
“I’ll bet you still have the keys,” Arlene Hamelin ribbed her husband.
“I probably do,” he replied.
The former employees talked about the reunion at the Hamelin home on Harrington Avenue and reminisced about their days in the old and new hospitals.
Hospital administrators even made shirts with the MidState logo that read “Sept. 28, 1998” for employees as keepsakes.
Jim Hamelin was the facility manager at the Cook Avenue hospital and instrumental in the transition to Midstate. He has also more recently taken city officials and potential investors on tours of the former hospital to assess damage and the scope of a needed cleanup. Arlene Hamelin has worked in many aspects of nursing and was on staff for the opening of MidState’s wound care and hyperbaric treatment center.
Pierce and Arlene Hamelin were among the graduates of the Meriden-Wallingford Hospital School of Nursing which closed in the late 1970s.
“It was our home away from home,” Hamelin said. “We slept there. We ate there.”
The trio grew nostalgic thinking of memories and friends they made at the hospitals.
“There were so many people that were like our family,” Arlene Hamelin said. “It was a small community hospital where everybody knew everybody. We wanted to remind us of who we are.”
Jim Hamelin knew the vast majority of the people who worked at the former hospital and many at MidState. He recalled hospital CEO Ted Horwitz organizing picnics for employees at Holiday Hill in Cheshire, where employees could play ball and relax with co-workers and their families.
He recalled the talk about the merger of the two hospitals in the late 1980s and his time spent working at both former sites as the year-long transition progressed. It was his first job out of high school and he worked on expansions at both hospitals for 45 years.
After some resistance, many employees at Meriden-Wallingford Hospital came to realize the move from Cook Avenue was inevitable. Pierce recalled how patient admissions and surgeries were scheduled to reduce the numbers admitted into the Cook Avenue facility. On the days leading to the closure, patients were given canvas bags with their names on them for their belongings and moved by ambulance to Lewis Avenue.
Administrators agreed to keep the Cook Avenue emergency room open on Sept. 28, for people in the community in need of urgent care. The department closed at about 2 p.m.
Despite their sentimentality, employees were excited for changes in facilities and technologies.
“When we built MidState, it was the newest hospital in 30 years,” he said. “A lot of the design for the facility came from Disney. Ted wanted to separate the employees and the general public.”
Pierce added the busy medical work of the doctors and nurses was built into the back corridor away from the public walkways and patient rooms.
“All the hospitals have been geared toward that,” Arlene Hamelin said. “Our memories are all Dr. Kildare and General Hospital. It was exciting moving into a new hospital. It was state of the art, all private rooms.”
The Hamelins and Pierce are saddened that it has taken so long to find a new use for the former hospital but are encouraged by the city’s efforts to transform the neighborhood.
The group is spreading information about the reunion through social media pages, fliers and word of mouth. They hope people will turn out for some fun and memories. The only request is a $5 donation to cover the cost of renting the pavilion and finger foods.
“We wanted to keep it simple,” Pierce said.
For more information contact Arlene Hamelin at firstname.lastname@example.org or Pierce at email@example.com.