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Hundreds gather to remember Donna Gross

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Donna Gross memorial

Three members of the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians leave flowers at a memorial for Donna Gross, the psychiatric technician strangled by a patient at Napa State Hospital one year ago Sunday. Chantal M. Lovell/Register

A year has passed since Napa State Hospital psychiatric technician Donna Gross was murdered on hospital grounds, but her memory is far from forgotten.

On Sunday, about 200 family, friends, coworkers and strangers gathered near the entrance of the hospital to mark the anniversary of the 54-year-old Concord woman’s death. Similar memorials were held across the state at mental health facilities to share stories of Gross’ life, heartache felt over the past year, praise accomplishments made and call for further safety measures to be implemented. 

“We lost someone we all truly loved,” said Brad Leggs, president of the Napa chapter of the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians. “She was our coworker, she was our sister. With Donna’s death, business as we used to do it here at Napa State Hospital is changed forever. It will never be the same. The way we look at safety now is totally different.”

Leggs said the five unions representing hospital employees have come together since Gross was strangled by patient Jess Willard Massey, 38, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison in August. Together, the associations formed the Safety Now Coalition of unions sharing the goal that such violence never happens again on hospital grounds. 

Union representatives and members said there is still much work to be done on additional safety measures, like putting the hospital-wide alarm system into place. It is expected to be operational by early 2012.

“We need to be patient because it took a long time for it to get this bad, but we need to be impatient at the same time because this is wrong and it needs to be changed,” state Assemblyman Michael Allen said of the efforts to make Department of Mental Health facilities safer.

“The sincerest thing we can do is to say, ‘We are not going to allow this situation to perpetuate, to go on and on, without taking the steps to make it safe for the staff and patients,’” Allen said, noting he was once attacked while working as a psychiatric nurse.

Others outside the hospital system shared personal memories of Gross, many recalling her smile and kind spirit and saying she was always willing to help others and never fell short of compassion.

“She sat in the fourth pew, on my right, right on the aisle. ... I could always see Donna,” said her pastor, Major Clay Gardner of Salvation Army Concord Community Church. “As I think about her sitting in the fourth pew on the aisle, I think the thing I miss most about her is her smile. Her smile lit up a room, it lit up a conversation ... I could be preaching away and I could be wondering if anybody was listening to what I had to say, and I could pick Donna out of the crowd, smiling at me.”

Some employees read letters from hospital patients who remembered Gross and said they, too, were devastated by her death and are at a loss without her.

Gross’ brother, Dan Kopache, said his sister learned her tenderness and tolerance from their mentally ill mother, who was a patient at Napa State Hospital. He said Gross not only cared for her four children and grandchild, but those in the neighborhood as well as her patients, whom she thought of as her own.

Anna Bock, Gross’ daughter, said she is angry about her mother’s murder and everything is “not OK here,” referring to safety issues that she and others said still persist. She read two poems, one by Emily Dickinson and one written by herself, to share her pain, frustration and thoughts of her mother.

“No one can bring my mother back and no one can take away the pain,” she said.

A photo memorial was set up at the entrance of the hospital where attendees placed flowers, 200 of which were white carnations, as a bagpiper played “Amazing Grace.” Hundreds sang the same hymn at a candlelight vigil days after her death.

“She has never left,” Bock said. “Her spirit can be felt in the halls and her laughter felt in our hearts. She sees us and she wants us to help each other. That’s really all she wants us to do.”

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