By Jillian Jorgensen
SALEM — When Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital first opened in 1984, Elizabeth Cary hired many of the first employees. The hospital has grown and Cary has moved on, but she recently returned — as a patient.
"I didn't think they'd take me," said Cary, 81. "I thought they'd say, 'We had enough of that old gal.'"
Cary recently spent two weeks in the hospital she helped found, recovering from a knee replacement as the hospital celebrates a quarter-century of helping people heal. Cary said she was thrilled to be treated there.
"If I died tomorrow, I'd be grateful for that," she said. "That was the best experience that I could've had."
Northeast Rehab has grown from the Salem hospital into a network that includes a hospital in Nashua and more than 20 outpatient centers around the state, with work on a third hospital in Portsmouth under way.
The hospital was started by a group of doctors led by Dr. Howard Gardner, a neurosurgeon working in North Andover who saw a need for rehabilitation services in the Merrimack Valley. At first, Gardner looked to set up in one of the hospitals in the area.
"In order to do that, you need a wing at least, and nobody wanted to give up their pediatrics or their obstetrics," said Gardner's wife, Naomi, who also is a hospital spokeswoman. "It was a very frustrating thing, so he finally said, 'Maybe we'll try to do it ourselves.'"
Cary, a nurse and former nun who had established a hospice in Virginia before moving north, was one of Gardner's first hires as director of family and patient services. She went on to hire much of the rest of the starting staff. Cary had taken an interest in rehabilitation after volunteering with wounded soldiers after Pearl Harbor.
"When we started, rehabilitation was a fairly new and uncommon thing," Gardner said. "It was only really developed during the second World War."
Like Cary, Howard Gardner had become interested in rehabilitation after working with veterans, in his case, from the Vietnam War.
"He thought, 'My goodness, this is wonderful. We should have this for our neurological patients,'" Gardner said.
Cary said the process of setting up a hospital — and getting the neighborhood to accept it — wasn't always easy.
"It was giving birth. It was really like giving birth," she said. "We were like a bunch of midwives."
She remembered pulling 20-plus-hour shifts at the hospital to keep things running. She made holiday gifts for every patient and delivered them on Christmas Eve, and organized patient fashion shows. She made sure doctors paid attention to their patients, many of whom were recovering from head injuries and strokes.
"I used to say, 'Doctor, say hello to that patient. They're paying your salary, you know,'" she said.
Hospital CEO John Prochilo has been there for 23 years. He said Cary's work extended beyond her job description.
"She really did everything. She had her fingers in everything," he said. "She's really our conscience and our soul."
Cary left the hospital in the late 1990s.
"I'm better at starting things than maintaining them," she said.
She said she thought what made the hospital special was its reputation for "family spirit" and how much effort the staff puts into caring for patients.
"I used to say it was the best kept secret in Salem, but I can't say that," she said. "I think it's the best rehab hospital in New England."
Over time, with new technology and more experienced staff, the little hospital they started has grown into something larger — and the staff has grown, too, Gardner said.
"I still get a little tingle every time I drive in," she said.
In his time at the hospital, Prochilo has seen many patients learn to live with disabilities and recover from injuries. Helping those patients is even more rewarding than seeing how the hospital network has grown, he said.
"We feel like part of their recovery. We feel like part of their future, and what they're doing," Prochilo said. "And that's really, really gratifying."
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