Lessons About Life...: From the Psych Ward

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Lessons About Life...

From the Psych Ward

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For an end-of-the-line psychiatric hospital "The Ritz" didn’t seem at all institutional. Once a fine hotel in an expensive mountain village, it had a shabby elegance that was almost chic and, being several blocks from the trendy shops, raised no eyebrows. Even the high security fence, in a suitable Victorian style, wasn’t obvious (and only presentable clients were visible on the garden lawns). Inside, though, things were rather different.

I was a Nursing Assistant trainee, and all trainees did their two-week "prac" at The Ritz. The work was not hard, but it tested our attitudes. As I was recovering from a broken ankle, I was often given sit-down jobs, so I had it easier than the rest of my group. The worst aspect for me was the smell. It stayed with you despite long showers and laundering everything every night after work. But that was a small price to pay for the rewarding experience of working there. The clients were memorable, and I learned valuable lessons from them.

"Mad Max" (a term of affection) had run his motorbike into a low-loader, at high speed after his buck’s party (when men farewell a mate who is getting married), on the night before his wedding. He lost a foot, much of the use of the left side of his body, the sight in one eye and a sizeable part of his brain. Despite all that, he was surprisingly cheerful most of the time. He still had a remnant of the wildness and good looks he’d had when young, and he proposed to nearly every female on staff at least twice a day.

Max loved listening to old rock’n’roll songs, especially Elvis. Sometimes he’d shout, "The Edge of Reality!” and one day somebody played that song. The supervising nurse said “Oh, no.” I looked over at Max, and he was crying. By the expression on his face, he didn’t know why. He’d wipe his tears and look at his wet hand, sort of surprised and curious at the same time. The nurse said, “Part of him understands what he’s lost when that song is played.” I asked why they kept the record if it hurt him so much. She said others liked it so she couldn’t destroy it, but it shouldn’t be played when Max was around. I think she hid it.

Feeding Mary was a task the regular staff hated dealing with; I was pretty good at it so that became my job. She was old and tiny—just skin and bone—frozen by arthritis in a fetal position. She often trembled and feared all men except the Ward Sister (who was a man, with a beard). She had to be fed like a baby, and her teeth were worn down from biting her spoon instead taking food off it. She was an alcoholic, Sister said, and also had a multiple personality disorder. OK, I thought. This will be interesting.

So when I was assigned to work with Mary, I silently asked God for protection and guidance. When the spoon-biter personality pushed in I said, quietly, “You go away, and let Mary eat”—and that worked! Mary ate slowly but actually quite well. I held her hand under the blanket (which stopped her trembling) and constantly used her name to keep her present, so to speak. When the nurse asked how I did it, I told her the main thing seemed to be that she needed to feel safe, so hold her hand, and that saying her name often and talking to her kept Mary in focus. Plus the spoon-biter "personality" needed to be told to let Mary eat. The nurse said she’d never thought of doing it like that! I prayed a lot for Mary.

Gina was a very lonely Italian lady. Few of the clients in that wing had visitors. Gina’s husband John was also there, but he didn’t know her. She spent a lot of time, especially at night, walking down all the corridors, looking for him. She found him quite often, but she never recognised him either. On my last shift, an evening one, the nurse asked me to keep an eye on Gina and to make sure she stayed in her bed; once the medication took hold, she’d sleep, but not if she "went walkabout." So I sat on the edge of Gina’s bed. She wanted to talk. I’d once been married to an Italian…so of course, she wanted to talk! She probably hadn’t had a hug lately, either, so I let her hold my hand. Italians I’d known spoke by touch as well as words. She told me about her daughter (who visited once a month), and I told her about my son. She cried a little. I made her laugh. She went to sleep. I was late getting off my shift but that didn’t matter. The sad thing was that the nursing staff would never have the time to do that for her.

Les never spoke. The most he said was a worried "Nnnnhh?" when he looked at magazines or newspapers, which was often. My final morning at the Ritz was spent assisting the nurse in the diversional therapy room. Les was making a nuisance of himself, holding his magazine open, right in the faces of other men, and whispering "Nnnhh?" One of them snapped at him: "Get away! You're as mad as a cut snake!" (Which was sort of funny, given the situation.)

The therapist asked me to sit Les at the table, give him scissors and ask him to cut pictures from magazines. He liked doing that. I sat across from him and noticed how precise he was. Sometimes he’d point to something and go “Nnnhh?” and I’d ask him to cut out something else. After a while, though, I noticed a pattern to his concern and asked the therapist what he’d done in normal life. He had been a printing foreman, before electronics took over. I had worked in the printing industry, too, and Les reminded me of my printing foreman’s obsession for detail and perfection (he often checked print with a jeweller’s loupe, a small magnifying glass set in an eyepiece). I had noticed that it was the fonts used in magazine ads that bothered Les most, or the lay-out. So then, when he said “Nnnhh?”, I said “That’s very condensed and hard to read,” or “It’s soft and fuzzy because it’s a perfume ad—it’s pretty” and he said “Pretty.” The therapist put down her pen and listened in. He stopped cutting and started pointing at headings and lay-outs, and I’d make a comment, using printing jargon. He settled right down.

When the lunch bell sounded and the men lined up at the door, Les hung back, to be the last one out. He touched my shoulder and said “Thank you.” His eyes were clear. I said, “All the best, Les,” and he said, “Yes, you too.” The therapist whispered, “He hasn’t said anything for five years!” I hope she kept talking with him.

I learned some really comforting and very precious things from those people at The Ritz. I learned that I needed to figure out where people were coming from and to communicate in ways they understood best, where possible. I learned that answers don’t need to be complicated; nor do the questions. I learned that common sense with compassion works better than compassion alone. I learned that we can use our life experiences to understand and help others better.

But the best thing I learned was how marvellous is the human mind made in the image of God. Even when a person’s mind is damaged, often much of the core personality and character is still there. God created humans with the "spirit in man" so we have minds rather than mere animal brains (Zechariah 12:1). It's likely that God uses that spirit to "record" everything about a person's personality and character.

When there is brain damage, other people must put forth extra effort to “see” the real person. What really counts is that God sees him and remembers him perfectly.

It’s extremely comforting to know that God will remember and restore everyone’s personality and character when they are resurrected. At that time, each person God, our great Creator and Healer, will resurrect everyone whole!