from A Squandered Life / Alberta Mental Hospital '67
Sometime after I'd given my notice, I was out and about with one of the kids and turned around to find myself confronted by Jimmy, the allegedly prescient boy from Cedar Ward. How he'd suddenly got there I still don't know, but this time he wasn't staring at me emptily. As I was looking around for his staff escort, he, very pleased with himself and strategically placed in my face, announced, “You're going to Spruce Ward.” This was of course laughable and I recall feeling vaguely disappointed that yet another hospital rumour was found to be groundless. I was on Linden, one of the elite members of nursing staff, acknowledged to be intelligent and sensitive and not the sort of talent to be wasted on any “low grade” wards - least of all Spruce, the lowest of the low.
A few days later I received notice that I was to be transferred to Spruce.
I guess the various powers involved felt that, as I'd given notice, my commitment to the ward would be less than the 100% required, but nobody discussed it with me or, apart from Jimmy from Cedar, gave me any warning. Having once been in, finding myself out of favour at Camelot was a lot harder to take than if I'd never been in the blessed circle at all.
Spruce was an entirely different world, not just from Linden, but even from Pine. These poor tortured creatures really were from the depths of Dante. Like on Pine, they had to be got up, dressed and fed in the morning and fed, undressed, and put down in the evening. But these boys didn't go out to schooling of any kind. These boys were complete no-hopers, some with physical deformities to match. Some physical deformities were brought on by their mental state. One boy had a band of hairless callous across the back of his head because each day he would sit himself up against the day room wall and rock his head from side to side, for hours on end. Many were Down's Syndrome boys, with the full repertoire of Down's characteristics in extremis. Some boys were hydro-cephalic, with huge over burdened heads on small under developed frames. Some could speak; some could even make a certain amount of sense. Some simply stared vacantly into their own untappable inner spaces, responding only to being led by the hand to and from dormitories or dining area or medication offices.
Most had also to be fed by hand. Meal times were a mad confusion of clatter and cries as staff struggled to get everyone fed on “schedule”. One boy had a reputation for being able swallow any amount of food in one go. I have to confess to testing this reputation out. Whatever I heaped on his spoon, he'd open his trap door mouth and, without so much as his blinking, down it would go in a single gulp. His stools inevitably matched these gargantuan inputs. And of course, faeces figured largely in this life. The odour of shit and piss permeated the day room and, to a lesser extent, the rest of Spruce. Cleaning up after “accidents” was a major part of the job. I became adept with a mop and bucket and intimately familiar with bodily routines of which I wished to have no knowledge whatsoever.
I would be out in the day room with one other nurse and there would usually be a senior nurse in the glass command module. My job was simply to be there to oversee, clean up messes, and occasionally untangle fights or misunderstandings. There were occasional breaks in the daily cycle, like snack times and medication times and maybe special TV programme times but most of them simply lived in that day room till it was time for bed. Bed time was far more time consuming than on Pine. Most of these kids had to be undressed, showered, pajama'd, tooth-brushed, and escorted to bed individually.
Night duty on Spruce was considerably more peaceful than day duty. It consisted of reading a book in the glass observation office and, every half-hour or so, getting up and doing the rounds of the dormitories to see that no one was up and about. Some had pee routines which, at times specified on the clipboard, required their awakening and guidance to the lavatories. They would stand there blearily, still half asleep, and if they didn't start to pee we would turn on the taps in the sinks to trigger their sub-conscious need to flow. On my first night shift, quite early on in my Spruce career, I was patrolling a dormitory as silent as death except for a mysterious rustling. I thought maybe rats had got in and walked slowly and quietly to the source of the sound. I found myself standing by the bed of one of the more vacant boys. Under the sheets he was masturbating like a joyless machine. I left him to it. On my next round, I heard the sound again and, sure enough he was at it again. Back in the office, the guy I was on duty with said, “He never stops.” Next round, he was still at it, his empty eyes staring at the ceiling, his hand active under the sheets. I touched his arm and he stopped, still staring at the ceiling. It was calm and quiet for a moment. I lifted my hand and he immediately started again. I touched his arm again. He stopped. I lifted my hand again; he carried on, untiring, machinelike, purposeful and purposeless, like a metronome in a vacuum. I discovered he did eventually stop when he fell asleep some time in the early hours of the morning.
The Charge Nurse at Spruce was a big burly unkempt man – the antithesis, in terms of appearance, of the Dutchman on Pine. He was a kindly man and the staff here seemed more relaxed, less preoccupied with the appearance of trying to improve the lots of the kids on this ward. They knew there was no redemption. They also suspected, although this was never stated or discussed, that they were on this ward because, like the kids, they were “low grade” - not up to performing well on the higher grade wards. This in itself added a subtle but pervasively depressing quality to the atmosphere. I was glad I was soon to get back on the road.
© 2012 Deacon Martin