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.