One of the many holiday jobs I had while I was a young student was as a Ward Orderly in a mental hospital, which was without a doubt the most depressing and enlightening jobs I ever had.
I saw an ad asking for students who wanted holiday work to apply to a nearby lunatic asylum, and as the wages were reasonable and they didn’t want any particular skills or experience, I thought it was worth a try.
So I duly went to the hospital, found the relevant official and signed on for the duration of my holidays. All seemed well, but I should perhaps have become a wee bit suspicious on being asked to sign something called The Official Secrets Act, in which I promised – on pain of death apparently – never to discuss or write about anything I saw or heard whilst working in this hospital.
As you will now see, I have decided that I am no longer frightened by what the British Government might do to me if I discuss that job – not that I am aware of doing anything much that could be counted as an “official Secret”.
So, there I was, on the start of my first shift, waiting nervously to be taken to the ward I would be working in for my time at the hospital. The office I had to report to was at the front of the asylum, and all was clean, cheerful colours and paintings on the walls.. nurses wore clean uniforms and all seemed very organised and peaceful. Little did I know!!
I was duly taken in hand by one of the staff, signed that secrets act, given a couple of gigantic cast iron keys and led off to the back section of the asylum. The further back we went, the worse things became. The cheerful colours of the front gave way to a dirty and shiny green colour on all the walls, no more paintings on the walls, and the nurses were much less appealing.. being mostly large and rather fierce looking men in somewhat stained and rumpled uniforms.
Also we went through what I later discovered was the section of the hospital reserved for women patients, numbers of whom were wandering around in the corridors, or curled up in odd positions against the walls. Frankly they terrified me, as they really did look insane. Wild eyes, wild hair and filthy clothes.
In due time we arrived at the door of the ward I should be working in, and I discovered why I had those two huge keys. I had to go through a sort of airlock to get into the ward, in which I could only open the outer door, while the inner one was closed, and the reverse on exiting. This was simply to prevent the “patients” from escaping from the ward.
This ward by the way, was a ward for about 60 men, all of whom were effectively locked up in it until they died. It consisted of a large dormitory, with two rows of iron hospital beds, an equally large bathroom with showers, baths and toilets galore, the Day Room in which the patients (all men obviously) passed their days, and as the icing on the cake, a row of about 4 padded cells.
This whole was staffed during the day by myself and about 4 male nurses, and at night by one male nurse. Not good.
By the way, I found a use for those padded cells very quickly, they were superb for taking a quick nap in, as they were quite literally padded, all around, floor, walls and ceiling, even the door was heavily padded. so simply lying on the floor was really soft and comfortable… Great for a nap.
In fact we only used these cells for their intended purpose on one occasion while I was working there, so it wasn’t a regular tool of the trade as it were. And whilst they may sound an appalling idea, if you have a fully grown man flailing about, and totally out of control, bunging him in such a cell (safely in a straight jacket too) is the safest place for him to be. Not nice or fun, but at least no self harm can occur.
In fact I very quickly came to view my work there in a totally pragmatic fashion once I realised that the purpose behind this hospital was to keep the patients quiet and relatively safe until they died. No medicine was involved, The only medicine I saw in my time there was only stuff we administered every morning and evening that was intended to keep them calm and quiet… And we only saw real doctors on two occasions while I was there (More on that in later posts on this job). Basically were were nothing more than prison guards in what I quickly realised was a sort of inefficient prison camp.
I shall discuss this aspect of my work there in later posts,but in this one, I shall talk about the patients, some of whom were the most delightful individuals, some of whom were absolutely awful and horrible people and some were nothing more than slightly ambulant vegetables. And a few who were genuinely tragic figures, especially those sufferings from a horrible disease called Huntington’s Chorea (here is a definition of this horrible condition). There were two people with this condition in the ward, one an elderly guy and well advanced in this disease, the other was a boy of about 20, who was still at a reasonably early stage of the sickness, and knew exactly what was awaiting him … I hated this!
The Roman Centurion.
I know this is something that every mad person is supposed to be, but I promise you there was one charming old man who believed that he was in fact a Roman Centurion based in Jerusalem.
Every morning one of the first things I would do was to go over to him and discuss the doings of the previous day with him. He would inform me about the soldiers under his command who he had had to discipline, how the morning parade had gone and all manner of other stuff that would have occurred in his life if he had really been who he totally believed he was. It was fascinating to listen to him talking, he really knew what he was talking about, and as I said, was 100% convinced that he was a Centurion.
And he was a totally charming and delightful fellow as well.
I had a look in his file to see if I could find out what was wrong with him and who he was. And discovered what was all too common with the inmates of this ward at least. He had been found wandering around one of the big railway stations in London, didn’t know who he was (actually he knew damn well who he was, a Roman Centurion), and as no one claimed him he was simply dumped in this Lunatic asylum, where he sent the rest of his life. So when I met him, he had already spent about 20 years in that set of three rooms.
Sadly he met a very unpleasant end while I was working there. One night he went to have a piss, slipped and fell over and broke his thigh.
The doctor who was called to tend to him simply prescribed huge doses of Morphine and a sand bag to hold his leg in place in bed. This didn’t really work, as the guy was mad, and simply didn’t understand his injury, and wanted to get back to his duty in the Roman Army. So he was constantly attempting to clamber out of his bed, not something that works if you have a broken thigh. In the end we had no choice but to tie him to his bed, which only helped a little, as he still could writhe around, and did so.
By chanced I was sitting beside him, trying to keep him calm and still when he finally died – pneumonia I believe. It was my first experience of a peaceful death (I had seen people shot or dying of disease on the street in Egypt and the Yemen as a young kid). Even though when he died he was asleep, the moment he died I knew it at once. Not sure why, there was no drama, not choking sounds or any other external sign of his death, but I knew it at once. Something does disappear when people die. I have seen it a number of times since. Can’t explain it, but it is so.
Another intriguing fellow was a guy who was apparently profoundly schizophrenic. Generally he didn’t say or do much, but I used to wander over to him a few times a day, and ask him to describe what he saw when I held out the palm of my hand to him. He seemed to be on a permanent acid trip, as his description was always a bit like this….
“Blue waves and green strips, all waving slowly among pink circles…… “
And if I asked him to do it again after about 10 minutes, what he described was totally different, but couched in the same sort of terms.
Anyhow, that s enough for this instalment, I shall come back to this section of my life again as it was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had, and this in a long and varied life with many professions and living in many countries
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