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Sitting around the common area I listened to a fellow patient explain how poisonous gas was being piped in through the vent above us. I was sitting under this vent when shift change happened. This group of staff was known for intimidation and lack of empathy. As they marched in I saw a mist pouring from the vent. It was going to be a toxic and oppressive week. I looked at Peter with wide eyes and we both braced ourselves.
Over the next few days the anger on the unit began to escalate. This was one combination of nurses that, like a full moon, seemed to bring out the worst in people. The tension was intense and about to manifest in deadly ways, but for now there was just a lot of yelling.
Cigarettes had been rationed and the smokers were the first to protest. I was wrong to be so afraid of this noise. After all a howling baby is definitely breathing. Some of the voiceless among us were running out of air and no one had noticed.
Did the charts reflect the buttons that had been pushed? I don’t think sitting in a line inside the nurses station snickering, eating popcorn and watching us like zoo animals was listed as one of the accomplishments for the day. When we cracked up as a group watching them we were quickly forced to disperse to our rooms. Looking back, I am beginning to see how threatened they were by a power we didn’t even realise we had.
Peter was one of the silent who, like myself, felt he couldn’t breath in this hostile environment. I didn’t know much about him. Our connection was not in words. We sat in the common area with our backs to the corners for protection communicating our discomfort without speaking. Nauseated and on edge, we watched the chaos unfold around us. We wouldn’t manage under this level of danger for much longer. Peter was dying right in front of me.
A large man took a chair to the glass bunker while screaming obscenities to protest how he was being treated. At first, I hid between my bed and the wall praying for safety. Later I watched as six orderlies took him away to an isolation room. It was brutal, but in a twisted way, I envied the contact. The invisible among us were not being touched at all. In this place acting out was the only way to get a private room and some breathing space away from the poisonous atmosphere. What protection does that leave for those of us who freeze instead of fight?
I have had the same impulse to break the glass and let the nurses spill out onto the floor. Piranhas are less intimidating and easier to manage out of water. As patients we used to sit together in the common area just outside the fishbowl and creatively assign aquatic species and names to each of the staff.
Peter was quietly waiting for the right opportunity to escape. More boisterous inmates, demanding attention, opened a crack in the system wide enough for the contemplative and determined to slip through. Peter bought a razor and during shift change slashed an artery and bled out onto the toilet floor.
I returned from a pass unprepared for the security measures that awaited me. Intentionally, I had stayed away long enough for the toxic nurses to be replaced with a set of kinder faces. Poisonous gas was no longer coming through the vent, but it was already too late. Was it possible that they were blissfully unaware of the damage they had been paid to do?
We were housed in the TV room surrounded by extra staff. Couldn’t they see they were too late? We needed protection days ago. After an hour and a half I watched an ambulance drive away slowly with no lights or sirens. Both attendants were in the front seat. I used to work with Emergency Medical Services and knew instantly what this belated and unhurried exit meant. The only patient missing from the room was Peter.
I curled up in the corner where the piano met the wall and began mourning 24 hours before we were told the truth. A senior staff, who I didn’t recognise, announced that there was an accident and they were not sure yet if the patient would be fine. I wanted to tell them that I already knew better. Peter was finally where he wanted to be.
A wise nurse who we had categorised as an angelfish sat down on the floor beside me. I never expected her to wrap me up in her arms. In that moment I was planning to leave through the same chasm Peter had fallen through, but aurora was holding on for dear life. The crack began to close.
I wish more time had been spent finding the meaning in our loss and using this horror as a catapult for quick change. Instead, his bed was washed and a new patient replaced him. We were pushed to move on and those who reacted emotionally were often medicated. Where was the space for our grief?
I see the reasoning behind the damage control. Losing a patient who was hospitalised as a protection from suicide to a suicide right on the unit cannot be good for business. Maybe it is impossible to have an open and honest discussion about this. I am not neutral because these are my friends. Staff are not neutral because this is their paycheck. The glass is preventing us from hearing each other. Instead, I will remind the world to remember Peter and others like him. Many sensitive souls have lost their lives within hospital walls only to be forgotten.
A day later we were all brought back together in the TV room. The programme facilitator gave us the news. One patient reasoned bitterly that Peter was dead because they wouldn’t give him a cigarette. I know it was so much more than that. There was agony in his heart and something sinister in the air.
Ronda Richardson is a consultant, coach and advocate looking to bring awareness to the stories of people often made invisible by diagnosis and trauma.
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