Sleep crashed me against the night's rocky shores until close to three this morning, and two hours later the forgotten alarm jarred me back to consciousness. Were I inclined to blame someone for last night's difficulties, I would place the yoke on my own shoulders. My friend Brenda took me to dinner last evening. I ordered wine before she arrived, a rich Pinot Noir which she mirrored in her choice. I know better. Red wine cramps spastic muscles and it did no less to me last evening. Coupled with the jangled nerves from the Chocolate Gateau which I ordered and Brenda kindly shared with me (to spare me the full burden of its after-effects, no doubt), the cramping intensified and I fell asleep late and exhausted. Light streamed in my window when I awakened, three hours after the radio blared out news from KCUR to interrupt my first thirty minutes of fitful sleep. I glanced at the clock: 7:45 a.m. And suddenly, a memory burst forth from the murky depths of my brain, Walter Mitty style.
It happened in 1973. I was working as a ward secretary at St. Vincent's Psychiatric Hospital. I had been co-opted to serve as an ECT witness when a third was needed. I followed the nurse Sister Kenneth Anne and the psychiatrist Dr. Craig to the inner corridor where the treatments took place. I stared at the back of Dr. Craig's head, with its thinning red hair and growing bald spot. In his rumpled, stained green suit and brown, worn shoes, he looked like Willy Loman, about to take another road trip, looking for sales, just before the deadly turn in the road.
Sister Kenneth Anne stood taller than Dr. Craig by most of the short white veil descending from the crown of her own head, the veil which covered smoothly combed brown hair. She squared her shoulders when she walked. Her narrow back kept straight but easy; the full skirt of her working habit swayed slightly against her stockinged calves, a few inches about her impeccably white duty shoes. From the rear, I admired the way she walked behind Dr. Craig but at her careful pace, not deferential, not subservient, just second. In my rumpled blue polyester clerk's uniform, I felt that I belonged in Dr. Craig's class -- disheveled, careless, inferior to Sister Kenneth Anne's crisp composure.
The patient had been wheeled to the inner room by the time we arrived. A male aide stood beside her wheelchair, gazing blankly over her trembling, greying head. She wore an alarmed look, casting her eyes about the windowless locked room in the back corridor, the corridor which itself had been secured by Sister Kenneth Anne from the inside after we left 3 South's own barred passageway. She and the aide wore bundles of keys: His on a black leather belt which he wore low on his dark blue trousers, hers on a hook hanging from the cloth band spanning the waist of her habit. Dr. Craig and I shared the patient's helplessness: None of us had keys. In case of a fire or a sudden need for daylight or air, we would be reliant on our companions' good graces.
Mark the time, Sister Kenneth Anne told me. I glanced at the clock. 7:45 a.m. I made a careful note in the chart, a sheaf of printed pages held between two metal plates designed to hang in a chart carrel. Dr. Craig said, The patient seems docile and receptive to treatment, and I dutifully wrote his words beside the time. The aide and Sister Kenneth Anne lifted the patient from her wheelchair and a little whimper escaped her lips. I looked at Sister Kenneth Anne; she shook her head just sightly, enough for me to understand that I should not record the patient's utterance. Then she laid the patient's head on a clean pillow and I saw the woman's eyes close and her mouth begin to move. I recognized the whispered words: Hail Mary Full of Grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of hour death. Amen. I finished the prayer in my head for the woman had fallen into a kind of frightened stupor, eyes open, face rigid, fear stamped on her doughy features. Her body shrank from the aide's ministrations as he placed the electrodes on the exposed skin of her forehead and on the back of her neck. Sister Kenneth Anne placed a rubber grip in the woman's mouth and coaxed the jaw to tighten. Dr. Craig fiddled with some controls and Sister Kenneth Anne said, again, Mark the time. 8:00 a.m. Dr. Craig flipped a switch and the woman's body went stiff and began to shake. I looked away. A second time; a third. The woman's body lay still. Sister Kenneth Anne took the bit from her mouth and gently wiped away a bit of spittle.
Mark the time, Sister Kenneth Anne admonished me again. 8:15 a.m. Dr. Craig turned away from the limp figure on the bed and pushed past me, to the hallway, where he lit a cigarette. I clutched the chart against my chest and waited while the aide hoisted the motionless body back into the wheelchair. Sister Kenneth Anne tidied the room. Sister Kenneth Anne walked out into the hallway and led the procession back to the locked door which divided the darkness of the treatment area from the jarring Fluorescent light of 3 South, the acute ward where Sister Kenneth Anne held reign. Dr. Craig fell heavily into the chair at the chart carrel and grabbed the chart from my hand, scribbling a few lines. He considered what he had written, then looked at the head nurse who stood placidly above him. We've given her 48 treatments, he said lazily. Is her husband still complaining about her? Sister Kenneth Anne shrugged. She did not speak. Dr. Craig considered for a moment, then wrote something else and heaved himself back to his feet.
Let's give her a few more, he said casually, and then, winking at me, he left the nurse's station.
Sister Kenneth Anne watched him go without uttering even a syllable. The Dutch door clicked behind him and we heard him cackling to one of the aides working the floor. Minutes later, the clang of the outer door at the far end of the wing signaled his departure and Sister Kenneth Anne finally moved. She lifted the small aluminum ashtray from the desk on which he had left it, cigarette butts stubbed into ashes, the whole mess spilling onto the desk's otherwise pristine surface. She dumped the entire ashtray into the trash can, then used her own handkerchief to whisk away the remaining ashes.
That man is a pig, she said. Then she went into the little room where the nurses kept their personal belongings, and I sat back down at my station. Out beyond the window which separated us from the rest of the ward, I could see our morning's patient, slumped, still unmoving, silent, parked in her wheelchair outside of her room. The rest of the occupants of 3 South skirted around her, unspeaking, unseeing, as they headed to the dining room for breakfast.
As therapy for emotional ills goes, red wine and flourless chocolate cake might well be less permanent than electroshock treatment. But with Brenda's company, and the lovely salmon that I let myself eat at Avenues Bistro last evening, the treats sustained me. Their aftermath passes with the dawn; and now I drink good, strong coffee. I think of that woman, whose name eludes me. I wonder where they all are: The patient; and the boorish Dr. Craig; and Sister Kenneth Anne, whose placid voice and smooth untroubled brow still linger in my mind, though it was all long ago, and far away, in a building which still stands but has now been converted to affordable housing. The events in its back corridors must be long forgotten by all but us few who witnessed them; and even we will soon ourselves sink unremembered into the recesses of someone else's mind.