Bessie Burton Skilled Nursing Facility

In early 2007, Seattle University announced the closure of Bessie Burton Sullivan (BBS), a nursing home located on campus in the current Chardin residence hall. The decision was made behind closed doors, yet affected 135 elderly residents, their families, 200+ staff, student volunteers, and the larger community.

Reflecting Back on the Closure of Bessie Burton Sullivan (Article written 1/09)

      In a time of rapid change for Seattle U, the two-year anniversary of the closure of Bessie Burton Sullivan Nursing Facility, commonly referred to as “Bessie Burton,” brings back memories of a moral dilemma—one that called into question the university’s Jesuit identity and values as framed by the mission statement.

      Today, Bessie Burton is only a memory to those who spent their time there and forgotten to those who came to Seattle U after its closure in 2007. Bessie Burton now exists as Chardin Residence Hall, a dormitory for Seattle U students, many of whom do not know the events surrounding the closure.     

      The closure decision was made behind closed doors with the input of few more than President Fr. Stephen Sundborg, Senior Vice-President Tim Leary, and then-Provost John Eshelman. According to recent interviews with these individuals, the decision making group did not include at any point the former residents at Bessie Burton, their families, the managing team and staff of the facility (although the director was made aware of the decision prior to the announcement), or the Board of Trustees of Seattle U.  The latter was informed of the closure and approved it after the decision had already been orchestrated by the three individuals mentioned above.   

      The closure came at the beginning of Winter Quarter 2007, the time of flu season and colds. At the time, nearly one hundred SU students had signed up to volunteer at Bessie Burton for service-learning hours, nursing students were preparing to do practicums there, and families were settling in for winter in anticipation of spring.     

      On January 8th, 2007, a campus wide email was sent out informing students, faculty, and staff that Bessie Burton would be closing in sixty-six days. In the email, Fr. Sundborg stated, “Ultimately, our core mission and responsibility is to provide students with a first-rate educational experience and that is what makes the decision to close Bessie Burton Sullivan necessary.” The message also announced that the facility would be remodeled to provide student housing, faculty offices, 
classrooms and science labs to a student body that had more than doubled in the past ten years. 

   A handful of faculty members with a parent at the facility received prior warning, but it was news to the vast majority of those who received the email. Family members of residents often did not find out for several days following this announcement. The decision was ineffectually delivered down from above and community members were left to try to process and react.    

      Bessie Burton was one of two skilled nursing facilities located on a college campus in the US. It offered unique assets to the university that extended far beyond finances. The small size provided superior care to residents as compared to the “ware house” type model adopted by many other facilities. Its value, interviewees suggested, did not seem to be appreciated by decision makers.  

      Student Matt Salazar, a Humanities in Teaching major and Sullivan Scholar, was meeting with his boss, Dan Moriarty, of Campus Ministry to discuss his duties as then Student Campus Minister for Community Service when he heard the news.  Salazar, shocked and upset, had heard only vague rumors prior to this announcement, none substantiated until now. He sent out an email asking other concerned students, staff, and faculty members to gather at Hunthausen in order to create a space for reflection and processing. Several Jesuits members of the Board of Trustees as well as Senior Vice-President Tim Leary, who supported this administrative decision, attended the meeting. This gathering, initially organized to provide a space to come to terms with the closure soon transformed into an organizing effort to reverse the decision; prompted by the voices of those most directly affected (former residents and their relatives) who demanded direct action to be taken to stop the closure.   

       In the upcoming weeks after the announcement, a weekly vigil was planned outside of the administration office, letters were written, and a petition circulated. A few post-decision gatherings between the affected community and the administration were organized by the latter with the support of a relative small number of concerned students. Despite these efforts, the administration utterly failed to act on the concerns of the community by repeatedly stating that the decision to close Bessie Burton was final, irreversible, and in no way even revisable.    

       Louise Ryan, Washington State Long Term Care Ombudsman and a Seattle U alumna, acts as an advocate for the elderly. In a letter she sent to Fr. Sundborg the day after the closure announcement, she warned of a well-documented result of these types of closures for residents of nursing homes called “transfer trauma.” Transfer trauma is defined “as an increase in morbidity and mortality in institutionally relocated chronically ill elderly” and is in the process of becoming a legally recognized phenomenon. The average natural rate of death at Bessie Burton was 2-3 residents per month. During the two months following the announcement of the closure, 14 residents passed away. After March 15, the date the doors were closed, many additional residents died, according to the follow up study conducted by Ryan.      

       The effects of transfer trauma were made worse by the timing of the closure (mid-winter), the short window of time to relocate residents (about nine weeks), and the lack of support by the institution of Seattle University. Medical research on transfer trauma shows that elderly are 1.99 to 3.76 times more likely to expire due to abrupt environmental changes.      

      In October of 2006, three months before the announcement of the closure, Bessie Burton was found in compliance with state and federal licensing requirements according to the Department of Social and Health Services. According to former residents interviewed, Bessie Burton was a well-run, privately managed facility. It provided a close, personalized community for residents (with optional religious services), a favorable workplace for staff, a convenient location for resident family members, and a unique learning opportunity for university students, non-nursing and nursing majors alike.    

      The conclusion of every interview ended with the request for constructive ideas to ameliorate the current impasse and ideas to prevent a similar decision making process in the future. Ideas of forums and involvement of those whom the decision would impact were strongly suggested. Some asked for some type of memorial to be established to assist in the healing process. Most interviewees felt that nothing could undo the aftermath of the closure.

      “The end of this story is far from over; it will be years before the dust settles for good. I pray for the people who planned and implemented this atrocity may finally be forced to confront their actions and provide restitution to the people they have harmed” said a professor at the Seattle U School of Nursing.

Note: As of 2/10 no memorial has been created, despite verbal promises made by administrators when interviewed.