Noilly Prattle: Looking Back: 28 – the cuckoo's nest

Friday, May 15, 2015

Looking Back: 28 – the cuckoo's nest

main tower of the old WSH
     It was probably not something you would want to approach on a dark stormy night. There was something about the aura of the building complex that gave it the aspect of a Gothic horror film. It was a huge labyrinth and resembled a prison more than a hospital. It was, in fact, both.

        In the days of my employment there, Worcester State Hospital, a.k.a. Worcester Insane Asylum and Worcester Lunatic Asylum, housed thousands of patients either on voluntary or on involuntary court-ordered commitment. Mental illness is completely impartial and democratic. It strikes all classes, all races and all ages. Some patients were “chronics” and it was actually their home. Others were “acutes”, having an episode of Schizophrenia or Manic Depression or any other not clearly diagnosed illness, who would stay for the duration of their episodes, be treated (mostly with drugs) and released back into the community until their next episodes. Many “acutes”, after years of such episodes, became “chronics” and stayed in the institution until they died.

        I don't remember clearly, but I suppose it was with some trepidation that I started my first day on a locked ward. I was accompanied by the second shift nurse supervisor who escorted me to the ward to introduce me to the nurses and other aides on duty. She unlocked the door and opened it and showed me how to work the keys and emphasized the importance of not forgetting to lock it back up. It was at that moment that I fully realized that this was, indeed, a kind of prison and wondered what on earth I had gotten myself into.

Louise Fletcher's brilliant portrayal of Nurse Ratched
        The door opened onto a long corridor with either doors or openings to small ward rooms along the right and left walls where the patients slept. There was a young man sitting on the floor unmoving and unresponsive to a “Hello”. The corridor was painted in nondescript institutional green and we proceeded down to the nurses station adjacent to the day room roughly halfway down the corridor. The head nurse, an RN (registered nurse) was a largish pleasant matronly woman of about 50. The LPN (licensed practical nurse) under the RN was all business, no nonsense and the real ruler of the roost. Think Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cockoo's Nest * without the intellectual pretensions. She was more on the mop and bucket level. She instructed me on my duties and the rules and regulations of the ward, emphasis on the “rules and regulations”.

Paul Cezanne - The Card Players
        The job was basically taking care of the non-medical needs of the patients. Aides escorted patients to off-the-ward activities such as meetings with doctors, occupational therapy, recreation activities, etc., interacted with them in the day room, chatting, playing cards, etc. and, of course, supplying the muscle when a patient got violent or otherwise out of control and had to be physically restrained. This aspect was the part of the job I detested, but I think that certain types of aides liked the sense of power it gave them.

        And so began my first full afternoon on the no-social-life 3 to 11pm shift—unless you consider playing pinochle with Schizophrenics and Manic Depressives a social life. I learned that the young guy sitting on the floor was a catatonic named Rick. Rick was still sitting there in the same position when I got off my shift. I said: “Good night, Rick.” No response. I unlocked the door and let it clang shut behind me.

* One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kessey

To be continued...

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