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.