My place in time is marked: I came after paper plates and before plastic trash bags. The paper plates would be passed down the line that stretched from the kitchen or dining room, down the hall and out the front door of the farmhouse. It was the Fourth of July and it was the Hope family reunion.
Iced tea trickling sharp and cold down your throat in the humid heat. Heavy platters of fried chicken, sliced ham, cold meatloaf. Potato salad with or without hard-boiled eggs, deviled eggs with or without paprika, hard-boiled eggs pickled in beet juice–cholesterol hadn’t been invented yet. Mounds of rolls dusted with flour; Grandma’s lemon butter, made with the blood of young grandchildren set to finely grating lemons. Bowls of fruit, trays of watermelon, six kinds of chocolate cake and my very own sugar cookies.
It was all to be piled on paper plates and carried out to the long tables set underneath the maple trees in the green valley that had belonged, momentarily, to William Penn and then, permanently, to the Hope family.
I am the granddaughter of Hope. My meal is passed to me on a paper plate on the locked ward of a state psychiatric hospital. The food is prepared in the institutional kitchen then trucked out to the warming kitchens in each building then put on trays to be taken to the locked ward. Whatever it is, it is cold when it gets there.
There is coffee–lukewarm, decaffeinated and a scant two-thirds of a cup–only at breakfast. Dry toast, the butter to be spread with the handle of a plastic fork because even a plastic knife is deemed too dangerous for us. Oh, Lord, how they treat us. And we gather three times a day to be fed cottage cheese, stale bread and processed meats.
There is no communion. Each person moves in his own world, not making eye contact, trying to avoid the fragile boundaries of the next person. One woman sits while the aide stands behind her and keeps downward pressure on her shoulders. The woman has pickled her brain in drugs and will never be coming back.
Every year they come back to the farm in the valley. They gather, hug, and share news of mother’s health, brother’s education and what they named the new baby. There are color and flavor in the companionship of others: the deviled eggs have vinegar. In the hospital, everything is bland and colorless. During one stay when I had dental problems, they put my every meal through the food processor: gravy train three times a day.
Answer me this: if a being is taken out of her birth community, does the being recreate the community or dissolve into disunity? The valley was a deep green cradle. My grandmother, her brother and her sisters lived on adjoining properties. How to explain this small valley to a world of turnpikes and thruways? My mother insists that she grew up outside the valley. She doesn’t know that just a mile down the road doesn’t equate to ‘out of the valley’ in the rest of the world.
In the valley, they use paper plates so they won’t have to wash them; in the hospital, they use paper plates so you can’t throw them. I have come a long way from one paper plate to another.
Atty. Susan Young
Legal Services of Central New York
I was particularly sorry that we missed your presentation at the advocacy training. My last hospitalization at Hutchings was horrendous and I can’t forget it. Would you take ten minutes to read the enclosed [Notes from a Hospitalization] and tell me if there’s anything actionable in it?
Attorney Susan Young read “Notes from a Hospitalization” and directed me on how to write to Hutchings:
Bryan F. Rudes, Director
Hutchings Psych Center
Dear Mr. Rudes:
Pursuant to Section 33.16 of the New York State Mental Hygiene Law, I am requesting access to the clinical records pertaining to my inpatient stays at Hutchings Psychiatric Center.
Please let me know within ten days whether I can have access to my records. You may reach me at [xxx-xxxx].
Hutchings responded with a letter in which they said I could make an appointment at the convenience of Dr. Kou or the social worker to review my records. The law—which Hutchings knew—stipulates that I can see my records without oversight, nevertheless Hutchings willfully declined to comply with the law.
When I rejected oversight and repeated my request to see my file, Hutchings wrote back that now I would have to meet with Dr. Kou and the social worker. Dr. Kou, who had mistreated me, denied me access to books, and tried to force me to sign a blank discharge form would continue to control what I would see.
I went back to Susan Young, who sent a brief letter to Hutchings in which she quoted the law. That was all it took. Within hours of receiving the letter, Hutchings called and told me I could review my case file in Medical Records on any business day during regular working hours.
Susan went with me to Medical Records and we read the file. She opined that I clearly had been the victim of malpractice, however she could not act because . . .
I did not understand the “because.” I was a psychiatric patient drugged into passivity and driven into submission, so I did nothing. Dr. Jane Kou was allowed to continue her malpracticing ways without accountability.
Ten years later, she had a second shot at me that resulted in me spending a month on life support.
Susan Young now claims she never said Dr. Kou committed malpractice.