Dear Governor,

You didn’t know Jorge. He was just one of thousands of mentally ill patients living in one of your state mental health hospitals.

I wonder sometimes how his sister, his only surviving relative, is doing. I wonder if she knows the truth about how and why he died.

Jorge didn’t die from his heart disease, COPD, diabetes or long term dialysis treatments due to kidney failure. That’s how we all expected him to die. Fifty-five years old, in and out of hospitals much of his life, he was sure to die earlier than a healthy person his age.

Then he landed in one of your state mental hospitals. A few years after being admitted, his paranoia, his delusions and his lack of impulse control were somewhat improved. All we did to help him was of no help on his last day on earth. His last transport out of the hospital was in a body bag.

We told the patients, his peers on the ward, a couple of days later. Some already knew about it and some didn’t care. Some said “good riddance.” At the time of Jorge’s death, employees felt their own PTSD flare up again with increased respiratory rate, heart palpitations, and tears sneaking out during the unit de-briefing or later, in break room conversations.

Jorge’s dead because another patient killed him in the middle of the night when the unit was understaffed. He’s dead because your hospital refused to hire staff at appropriate patient levels based on the violent tendencies of many of our patients.

We know that the patient who killed Jorge will not be held responsible because of his own mental illness. Both men were mentally ill, both hospitalized for care and treatment. The hospital administration, and you—where the buck stops—is accountable for Jorge’s death. My colleagues know that. The doctors, the nurses, the janitorial staff all know it.

Yes, Jorge had a mean and nasty mouth on him, I’ll give him that. He could rile the calmest person in the room. That was his M.O. He was stingy. He was funny, flirty, kind at times, and very sad. He also played a wicked game of chess.

And now he’s dead.

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Headbanger in Paradise, Part 4

CONTINUED FROM  Headbanger in Paradise, Part 3

 

It was warm where we sat in the day hall, sunlight streaming through the windows onto my assessment sheet.

            “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Frank.”

“Where are you?”

He looked out the bank of steel-framed windows holding yhe world outside in a giant picture frame.

“Valley State Hospital.”

“What day is it?” I asked.

“Wednesday?”

“Right. What’s my name?”

“Shea.”

I smiled, nodding in agreement. “How are you feeling?”

No answer. His forearms rested atop the wheelchair armrests, fingers dangling. He seemed taken in by the giant tulip tree blooms drifting in the courtyard.

I chatted with Frank, other patients, and staff as they drifted into the day hall. Judge Judy ruled the TV in the far corner.

After awhile, Frank said he was cold and sleepy, a common ECT reaction. I wheeled him to his room. He was a little shaky but able to get himself into bed. I covered him with an extra blanket and watched him roll over to face the wall.

“Thank you,” he muttered.

“You’re welcome, Frank.”

This routine went on for a few weeks, one treatment each week, increasing to two treatments, then to three. After four months, Frank was having far fewer instances of violent behavior with only rare episodes of head banging. He slept better. His attitude was much improved. The treatments seemed to be working, with only minor, temporary, memory loss. Some days he would forget having breakfast. A few times, he didn’t remember the ECT treatment at all.

Frank’s parents, far from the norm, came to visit him often. They were amazed at the positive changes in their son’s demeanor. They’d delivered him to us from their foothills home less than six months earlier, after watching his long decline. They were hopeful. I’d seen life changing results in other patients after ECT. It was looking as if Frank really would have a new start in life.

After returning to the unit one day, we were again sitting in the day hall.

“Shea, can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure. Tell me a secret. I may not be able to keep it, though. What is it?”

“During ECT sometimes, I feel really high, like over-the-top stoned. I try to stay there to keep it, but it runs away. I keep trying to get back to it, but I can’t.”

“I haven’t heard that before,” I chuckled.

“Do you think you can get my doctor to give me more drugs to keep it going?”

“Ha, ha. I don’t think so, Frank. It’s just one way you’re responding to the treatment. Do you think, besides the unusual high, you’re improving?”

“When’s the last time I hit someone?”

“A few weeks now.”

“Good,” he said, his blue eyes glistening.

After several more treatments, Frank was showing great progress. No violent outbreaks and no head banging. His depression lifted, he laughed often, and he enjoyed the company of others. His memory loss, though, was becoming serious. In consultation with his doctors and parents, he decided to discontinue ECT.

Just before Christmas, Frank was discharged home. It was a grand gift for him and for all of us who had been part of his success.

He was happy, and I was happy for him.

On a road trip the following summer, I braked for a stoplight while driving through the tiny foothill town of Paradise. I spotted Frank walking in the crosswalk. He was holding hands and laughing with a nice looking woman about his age. He turned his head my way, squinting into the sun behind me.

He couldn’t see through the glare. I’m quite certain he couldn’t make out the big smile on my face.

 

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“Headbanger in Paradise” was originally published in its entirety in Untold Stories: From the Deep Part of the Well. 2016 Redwood Writers Anthology, Roger Lubeck, Editor. September 2016.

If you’d like the entire story in one piece, just ask.