Crazy Days at Metropolitan State Hospital – The Exam

Years and years ago, I worked at Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, Massachusetts, a state mental hospital, as a “mental health assistant.” It was a crazy place, even before its decline and decay after shutting down, as evidenced in these pictures.

After being hired while pursuing a degree in Psychology, I was grouped with about 25 people hired at the same time for a week long orientation. Some, like me, were hired as MHA’s, but the bulk of our class were destined for janitorial, kitchen and other support duties. For reasons still not clear to me, the bulk of the new hires were French-speaking Haitian immigrants. We were taught hospital procedures, patient advocacy, humane restraint techniques — and it was constantly impressed upon us to speak English around the patients. The point was made that speaking foreign languages around the clinically paranoid inevitably agitated them due to a belief that the conversation is about them, and several people had been severely injured or killed by chattering away in French in front of them. Most regarded the entire orientation program with a kind of detached boredom, which I found mildly disturbing, even as I absorbed everything intently and practiced restraint with fervor.

After the first day, we were taken to another building for compulsory medical examinations, lined up on a bench in order. I showed up on time, and therefore was first in line, filling out medical history and employment eligibility paperwork. As a native English speaker, I also finished that first, so I was called first. A nurse turned my arm into hamburger taking a huge number of blood samples (explaining briefly that more than 20% of new hires were testing positive for AIDS) before directing me to the exam room. Down the hall, second door on the left, I was told — the walk seemed like miles down a dark corridor lit with bare bulbs, and I counted two doors on the left far apart from each other, and walked into an operating theater the size of a gymnasium.

In the middle of this vast room, there was a man dressed in white, holding a clipboard, next to a gurney and a cart of medical equipment, wearing a head mirror. He was lit from above, but due to the size of the room, it was still mostly dark except for the center. Old, disused medical equipment lined the peeling walls in the gloom. Overhead, dark windows indicated an observation deck once used to observe surgeries, a broken pane or two indicating that there was probably nobody up there.

The doctor handed me a hospital gown and told me to take off all my clothes, including my watch. There was an enormous clock up on the wall of the room, but it had stopped long ago — I put my watch back on over three hours later, after the most intense physical examination I’ve ever had. The reflex hammer went everywhere, I was tested for strength and balance (he handed me an enormous dictionary to lift in various ways), old school eye charts, hearing tests, organ palpitations, ice-cold stethescope, and the rubber glove treatment. At the end of it all, I was given dozens of pages of exam documentation to take back. I got a clean bill of health, and he even managed to identify my mild tinnitus.

I put my clothes back on and took the long walk back to the waiting room. Everybody was still there, looking terminally bored. “Next!” I said, cheerfully.

One of the MHA’s spoke up. “You’re the last one. Where have you been? We’ve been waiting for you so we can go to lunch.”

The thought then occurred to me that I hadn’t been seen by a doctor at all, but I had gone to the wrong room and encountered a lunatic masquerading as a doctor. “You’ve already been examined?”

“Yeah, took maybe ten minutes,” he said. “Seriously, dude, where did you go?”

As it turns out, there were two exam rooms, and the doctor I saw was well known for his “old fashioned” examinations, so they always sent the first person to him. My paperwork was official, if superfluous. Three days later, I was officially medically approved to work in the hospital — and I noticed that fully 75% of the others who started orientation with us were now gone. “Lotsa AIDS in this group,” said our instructor tersely.

Due to my size (I’m a big guy) and my apparent competence at restraining patients, I was assigned to a chronic, long-term ward. “These guys are the worst of the worst,” explained the instructor on my last day of orientation. “Do your best to stay alive.”

I spent the rest of my tenure at the hospital doing exactly that.

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15 Responses to Crazy Days at Metropolitan State Hospital – The Exam

  1. Courtney says:

    Hi Michael. I also worked at Met State from 1989-1991
    I was a Rec. Therapist working evenings and weekends.
    I remember the Haitians well.
    I was never examined in any way.
    Look forward to reading more stories.

  2. billy says:

    i was a patient there in the 50s for being a stubborn child. i stayed almost a year.i used to run away to go home when my mom wouldnt come.they would catch us and put us in seclusion.once,i befriended a big kid named charley haskell to protect me from the other kids.he looked like lurch.we slept in a long dormatory .once i convinced the kids to escape in the snow.they took us out sledding,and i told the kids to head for the bushes down the hill.then we took off ,in moccasins yet. at the trolley stop i bummed fare home.looking like a waif people felt pitty for me. as we got on the trolley i felt a hand on my shoulder .lets go billy the attendant said,i was almost glad i got caught becAUSE MY FEET WERE FOZEN! then we got seclusion again.rubber mattress on the floor.there was also a kid named willy lebuff so named because he used to bang his head against the wall till it blood.sometimes volunteers would take us out and they had dancing once a week,the boy and gir patients .what a sight. well,thats all for now. billy bleakney

  3. Shaorn says:

    I don’t remember being treated quite that way. I also was a MHA from 79-82. I must have worked for a good administration as I noticd most of the staff were young and fresh ot of college. I loved working there, loved the clients and was taugt espect for them. By the way, do you know where our records of employment are kept. Certinly not everyone was commotted to thier job, but I was and only left due to pregnancy. I treated everyone with agreat deal of respect and love. Maybe I was different, but I was never scared. Respectfully, Sharon

  4. Ruth Ryan says:

    I am trying to find out if one of my cousins was institutionalized at MSH. I have a state death notice saying she died in Waltham in 1983…she was mentally retarded and her whole family was gone. Are lists available anywhere of patients?

  5. Tina says:

    I also spent some time there but not as a worker. Sometime between 84′ and 88′. It wasn’t a place you even wanted to visit. I spent a couple of months there for depression. I do remember some really nice staff but I also recall a couple of really hard a**es. I have gone on to finish HS and a bachelors degree in Psych and soc. I worked in the field for 8 years then went back to school for nursing which I have finished. I was told not to think about finishing HS and I think that’s what pushed me to do so. I found your post looking for the address. I live close by now and thought about just looking at the site where my past once was. Just to remind myself where I was and where I am now and how blessed I am to survived. Good luck to you. I wish you well.

  6. X Patient says:

    Ruth Ryan,
    Your cousin probably lived at the Fernald School which was recently closed. It was an institution for the mentally retarded (now called developmentally disabled to be PC). Though some poor souls who were mentally ill ended up at Fernald and some retarded folks were patients at “the Met.”

  7. Julie Greene says:

    Hey, wow, glad I found this. I live in Watertown now and was incarcerated at the Met in 1986. It’s a place you don’t forget. The “Mental Health Workers” were no more than prison guards as far as I could tell, as they did absolutely no counseling and knew nothing about mental illness. Many did not speak English well enough to adequately communicate with us. And yes, I do recall the sign in the dining room stating that workers should speak English while on duty. Of course they generally disregarded this rule except when bossing us around. Thankfully, I was armed with pen and paper and wrote down everything I experienced, from the moment I was admitted in that sweaty basement interview room to the moment I was discharged and told, “You can always come back.” I wrote it all down and saved that document for years and swore I’d end up getting it published. In 1997 I was told to forget the idea of ever making it out of the mental health system, that I was a lifer, doomed to be hopping around “programs” and hospitals and dependent on the system for life. So I went home and wrote my first novel. I tried an adult ed writing class and did fine. They had told me I was incapable of classroom work…well, they were wrong. I tried a college class and did fine, then applied for the adult degree program. Five years later, I had graduated from Emerson College (Boston) Summa Cum Laude with a degree in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at age 45. My BF died suddenly….heart attack. My dog died a month later. But the day of my BF’s funeral, I found out via phone message that I’d been accepted to grad school. I went on. The docs and social workers told me over and over to give up on grad school and waste the rest of my life in a day program, that this was where “my kind” belonged. But I finished my MFA in Creative Writing in 2009, Goddard College. My creative thesis was titled, This Hunger Is Secret: My Journeys Through Mental Illness and Wellness and it is published and will be available in paperback in about two weeks or so, sometime August 2012. In it contains my account of Met State and lots more. Today, my eating disorder has really taken a toll on my health but I am 54 years old and proud as can be. I will be giving readings, etc and speaking out whenever I can. They can try to drug me, tie me down, shoot me up with electricity, or force feed me, but they can’t stop me…I am unstoppable and will never, ever shut up.

    Julie Greene

  8. I was an LPN there, from about 1984 to 1989. I was charge nurse on the “Special Treatment” Unit, which was a ward for people suffering from a major mental illness, along with an addiction to alcohol or sedative/hypnotics. It was an experience all right. We weren’t equipped to handle any medical emergencies. and patients were sent out to medical hospitals when that happened. LPN’s did all the work, while RN’s sat on their asses and made huge paychecks. They had the MNA for a union, whereas we were in the same crappy union as everyone else. We got a lot of court cases, which we would have to evaluate, to determine if they really were mentally ill or just trying to avoid jail time. We had plenty of those. All in all, I liked working there. Unfortunately it was a place that housed very chronic patients, many of whom had been there for decades. I worked in the system for many years, and trying to get things improved was a losing battle with the state. I tried to get new paint, and I came into conflict with the painters union. Better clothing for people, dead end. I did what I could, stopping in Dunkin donuts on Sat. and getting a huge bag of day olds for the patients. the usual fare they served was dull at best. I still don’t understand where they put all these people from these hospitals. Believe me when I tell you, that a lot of them would not be good at half way houses or nursing homes. My mom worked in a Nursing home for years, and said that the elderly people there, were very bothered and frightened by some of these people who would grab their food and belongings. I agreed with her, that such placement was inappropriate. However, no one wanted half way houses and such in “their neighborhoods” . Boy the stories I could tell……………….I am now an artist and retired from Nursing.

  9. Kathy says:

    Does anyone know how I can find out if my aunt was a patient there. She died in 1984. What happened to the medical records of the patients? Thanks for any help.

  10. Jean says:

    Does anyone know of a Dr. Hedayat who worked at
    Metropolitian State Hospital in the 1970’s ?

  11. Jason says:

    I, too, worked at Met State, ’84 to ’86. I worked on Special Treatment, floating o.t. to Cambridge and Somerville wards. I feel it was predominantly staffed with very caring MHAs. There were staff members that were less caring, but they were the minority around the wards on which I worked. The occupation came with much stress, but most of the stress came from the politics of ‘the system,’ not the patients. There were people that cared about the patients and cared about trying to leave a positive mark in such a dark corner of human existence. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to have worked at Met State.

  12. Steve says:

    I worked at met state after its closing as security. I was able to rome the buildings while decaying, and falling apart. This place was freaky… Probably more so once it closed. I remember finding old patients, homeless at the time, still residing on the compound behind the try lines in made tents and such… Not to mention the occults we used to have practicing their rituals. FREAKY!!!

  13. Ken says:

    i had a great Aunt who seems to have been a patient and died there in 1968. Is there anyway of acquiring records pertaining to her illness and cause of death? Anyone who worked in 1968 who has any info would be much appreciated.

  14. Nancy says:

    I was there between 70 to 74 it was the most scared place I ever been in I was on ward c for the girls and yes the storie r true it was not a place for human. I was drug in to a comatose state more drug they gave and electro shock treatment wow that hurt so bad and the sad part is no one care what happen to us once we were put there glad to be out

  15. Kirby says:

    I used to spend years exploring closed hospitals, all over New England. The one thing I found everywhere I went? Records. Filing cabinets, boxes, decades of patient files, incident reports, personal affects. Anyone looking for old records of relatives in mental hospital is most likely not going to find them because they were left to rot in the buildings.

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