About Cheyenne. Cheyenne is a woman of color who stands about six feet tall. Her heritage is so mixed that she is a mini-United Nations all by herself. She is legally blind.
One morning, she is in the day room during breakfast, probably with more than one staff member on duty passing out breakfast trays. Another patient, Doug, throws a cup of coffee on her and calls her a nigger.
Doug is removed, and Cheyenne is angry. The staff is not making any response that Cheyenne considers adequate—assault and harassment of a blind woman, or a hate crime?—so she goes to the pay phone and calls the police to report that she has been attacked. Cheyenne calls out to a nurse in the nursing station that the police officer on the phone wants to talk to her. The nurse refuses, saying she won’t talk on the patient phone.
Cheyenne receives no satisfaction from the nursing staff about her complaints regarding her lack of safety. She walks the halls, peering out through blind eyes, trying to identify her assailant, sometimes asking me to dial the phone for her. She says that she will file a police complaint when she is discharged, as she cannot do when she is an inpatient.
The violation of a mental patient’s civil rights is not addressed. Cheyenne cannot read the poster on the wall, and has never heard of the Mental Hygiene Legal Service. The staff does not tell her about it. They act as if they are the final arbiters of justice; if it does not suit their convenience to be challenged, then they do not tell patients about their rights.
One day Cheyenne starts complaining that her doctor, Jane Kou, is going to discharge her but she’s not ready. For two days, Cheyenne loudly and angrily expresses her belief that she is being discharged prematurely.
Twelve years ago, Dr. Kou discharged me from Hutchings, suicidal and depressed, without medication, a therapist, or a psychiatrist. The ensuing hours and days were a horror never forgotten.
Two years ago, Dr. Kou tried to discharge my roommate, who had been assessed as suicidal less than twelve hours earlier. She did discharge her the following day, despite my roommate’s fearful protestations of still having suicidal feelings.
Three years ago, at another hospital with a different doctor, I felt I was being discharged while still dangerously ill. When I objected, a nurse promptly produced a form that stated my right, under the law, to protest my discharge. The nurse explained that the procedure was to call the Island Peer Review Organization (formerly located on Long Island), which would then have my chart faxed to them. Another doctor would evaluate the record and make an independent judgment.
No one at St. Joseph’s, including Dr. Kou, told Cheyenne about any of her rights.
About Doug. Doug is thin, middle-aged, and wears a porkpie hat. He paces the halls cursing people and making threatening gestures.
I am in a wheelchair and as he comes down the hall toward me, he curses me.
Another time, I am in a wheelchair with Cheryl, a counselor, beside me. Doug comes down the hall and threateningly brandishes his fist in my face. Cheryl does not reprimand him, or recommend that he be secluded in the back, or do any other thing to assure my safety. What she says is, “Oh, he does that to me, too.”
A young, healthy person who can run, and is paid to be there, does not evaluate one patient’s danger to others and act to protect the vulnerable.
If I were on a public street, I could call the police and protect myself by having this man arrested for harassment. On 3-6, all I can do is be afraid that Doug will attack me as he did Cheyenne.
Roommates. We are not allowed to enter one another’s rooms, so we gather in the doorway, two patients in the hall, two roommates inside, and we talk. One of the patients is convulsing us with laughter as she tells her stories, putting an antic twist on matters horrifying.
She had been picked up for some crime, unspecified, and decided that she wanted to sleep through Booking and Holding, so she took a moderate overdose of her antidepressant. Next thing she knew, they were hauling her out of Holding on a stretcher and her heart was racing a million beats a minute! ‘Boy—you never saw such stuff!’ she says. ‘They took me to the hospital where they shot me up with all kinds of stuff—seems you take too much of that crap, it speeds up your heartbeat!’
The woman’s roommate, Valarie, a slender woman with a thin face, is looking aghast, breathless, shocked. In the middle of the week she was transferred to cardiac telemetry because of a relentlessly rapid heartbeat. Now back on 3-6, the continual racing of her heart exhausts her—120 beats per minute. For days, she has been terrified by the probability of heart disease.
She was admitted about a week ago and put on new medicine. Both women were taking the same antidepressant. Val’s psychiatrist is having her evaluated for cardiac problems, not cutting her medication.
We learn from each other, not from our doctors.