Of all the patients on ward 400 with Gabriela at Huntingdon Hospital, Zack had become one of my favorites and Gabriela’s sidekick. The two of them got along great, were about the same age, and were both bright well-spoken young adults.
Zack had a different set of problems from Gabriela; he was a “duo-diagnosis” but his situation was a little more complicated than that. A few years ago when he had been a sophomore in college (he was now about 24) his mom told me he had been living the life of an average 20 year old. Then one day when she got a phone call.
Zack had been in an accident and had been thrown from a car. As a result of the accident Zack had frontal lobe brain damage and had been kept in an induced coma for nearly three months. After the coma and during his recovery Zack had to re-learn how to talk and walk along with many other basic life skills. It had been a long road to recovery for Zack as well as for his mom and dad.
Zack, like many young people his age, had also enjoyed drug use and during his recovery he met some pre-accident “friends” from college who encouraged and supplied him with drugs. These friends continued to do this despite warnings from Zack’s mom that it was important that Zack stay away from drugs completely. According to Zack’s mom these friends supplied him with drugs every day for nearly a month until finally Zack suffered a psychotic break much like Gabriela’s, so he really was, as he had assured me during Gabriela’s first days at Huntington, “just like that”.
Because Zack’s parents had conservatorship over Zack they were keeping him at Huntington Hospital to get him “clean”. Zack needed to be off drugs for at least 30 days as a prerequisite for getting into a rehab program for people who suffered from traumatic brain injury, psychosis, and drug abuse.
His parents were divorced but one or the other was there to visit Zack almost every day and if they weren’t there Gabriela and I included him as though he were a part of our family.
My first introduction to Zack was when he had told me “she’s in there”.
After Gabriela had taken her first shower Zack and his dad were in the day room. They sat across the dinner table from us and Zack’s dad greeted Gabriela with overwhelming enthusiasm; “Wow!” he exclaimed “What a difference!” He leaned toward Gabriela, “No really. I have greeted you every day since you arrived, for what” he looked to Zack for confirmation, “a week?” Zack nodded. “This is an amazing change! Welcome, nice to meet you.” Gaberila smiled shyly, “Nice to meet you too.”
Zack’s psychosis made him get stuck on ideas and he would wonder around the ward lamenting “I’m gonna die”. He spoke in a very deep surfer dude, California way; “I’m gonna die, soon. Dude, I can totally feel it, I’m gonna die”.
One day I said, “Zack how old are you?”
He responded “24”
“Look, I’m more than twice your age”.
Zack’s mouth fell slightly open as he listened, sleepy eyed.
I continued “Statistically I will die much sooner than you and I’m not quite ready to go”.
“Dude, you really think so?” He asked sounding somewhat relieved.
“Yep” I assured him.
Zack walked away, considering the possibility that his death may not be so immanent.
Another interesting character was a longer term patient, Roger. He was almost six foot tall but thin as a pole; he couldn’t have weighed 145 pounds. Roger had a full beard and long straight sandy blonde-gray hair. He spoke with a notable twang; I later found was from Oklahoma.
Roger was confused, disoriented, and angry when he first arrived. He didn’t know where he was or why he was being held. He had arrived after Gabriela’s first week during the time she had started her recovery but was still hearing voices.
The first week Roger disrupted the ward by never remembering which room was his despite the large sign the staff had posted on the door jamb with his name on it. Roger was known to have gone into everyone’s room at one point or another, sometimes climbing into their bed even if they were already in it!
One of those first nights after Roger showered for bed he walked from his room and stood naked in the doorway of Gabriela’s room which freaked her out. The staff swore they would keep an especially sharp eye on him so that Gabriela would be safe.
The following day, while I was visiting Gabriela, she had gone to her room to retrieve something and returned shaking — Roger had left his clean folded clothes on the foot of her bed. That was it for Gabriela. After that she avoided him completely and wherever Roger was, she wasn’t.
Much to her relief, Roger was briefly off Gabriela’s ward when he was transferred to ward 200, the geriatric ward. But that didn’t last because he was disruptive there as well.
By Thanksgiving Roger was making progress, I watched him sit quietly by himself and eat. He must have eaten his weight in Thanksgiving dinner and when he was done, he quietly adjourned to his room for the rest of the day.
After Roger’s behavior during the first week he was on the ward, it took Gabriela quite some time to warm up to him. But eventually, as he improved, Gabriela gave me small snippets of information about Roger; he hadn’t shared his full story with anyone else as far as I knew.
Although no one knew what for, Roger had spent time in prison and he taught Gabriela and Zack a card game called “Spot” that he had learned while incarcerated.
In all the time on the ward Roger had only had one visitor. When he visited the two of them sat together at the very end of the hallway on the floor and talked. He never had another guest again which made me sad to think that he was navigating life completely alone.
One weekend afternoon when almost everyone was in the day room lazing around, watching TV, playing cards, or just visiting, Roger walked into the room. He saw Dr. Wilson through the window between the day room and the nurse’s station. Dr. Wilson was seated at the computer, leaning back with his arms folded behind his head talking to one of the nurses, his back to the day room. Roger stood in the middle of the room and faced the window.
Roger announced loudly, “Let’s see how long it takes the bastard to notice this!”
Roger held out both hands, middle fingers fully extended flipping off Dr. Wilson like he was holding pistols. “Wanna take bets?” he chuckled, then the room erupted in a combination of laughter and bets …
“Five minutes!” shouted one patient, “Three minutes” from another.
“Bet he never notices”
It was a “Cuckoo’s Nest” moment. I couldn’t hide my amusement. Roger held his position like a gun fighter from the old west for nearly five minutes before the client assistant noticed his pose and gave him a quick quiet room threat.
Larry was the longest term patient; he had been on ward 400 for 11 months. Larry was schizophrenic and had a conservator who was not at all interested in his care. Larry was in a court fight to regain his rights to self-determination.
Larry was very upbeat but he almost never interacted with the other patients; he watched TV intently or spent time in his room, that was it.
Because the phone for patients was next to Larry’s TV seat, he had answered the phone quite a few times when I called to speak with Gabriela. Each time he answered he would yell into the phone “I don’t speaka English … I speaka Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Italian”….whatever the language de jour was. Then he would hang up the phone.
When I first walked into a Psych ward I tried not to make eye contact with any of the patients, for some reason I thought mental illness might be contagious and I also felt that if I didn’t acknowledge mental illness then there would be no way that my daughter would have it.
I know how ridiculous that sounds but this was all so new to me. What I came to know was that the people on a psych ward are just people, Zack was a mathematical engineering major, Roger was an engineer, Larry was a harmless guy that in the sixties we would have referred to as odd.
The people on a psych ward are a slice of society. There are people from every facet of life; there are the rich, the poor, the educated, the uneducated, the married, the single, the young and the old. We all run the risk of experiencing mental illness.