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Sunday, January 3, 2010

The horror that was 2-May

This is a picture of me mom took just after I was admitted to 2-May.
How I look in this picture is about how I felt at the time.
I wanted to just go home with mom and Clara.
But I knew I didn't have a choice. 

This was about the time in my life,
when I realized I had no control.
Hence my expression.
There was this old black and white movie I watched once where there was an old haunted house set amid dark, overcast skies. The fog was so thick you could barely make out the people. The skies were thunderous, with occasional flashes of lightning. The movie was horrifying like any Edgar Allen Poe movie.

That was the image I had of 2-May, the pediatric medical/psychiatric unit at NJH/NAC when my Counselor Ric gave mom and I a tour of that place shortly after I was admitted to 7-Goodman in January on 1985. Two May was an old musty smelling place, a gloomy milieu, the lighting faint like fog, and of course all the troubled kids spent time down there. I couldn't help that it reminded me of that old movie.

After I was on 7-Goodman for about a month, I remember standing looking out the window at the Rocky Mountains which were gray set against the clear blue sky. Standing next to me was one of my two room mates and good friend Shawn. He said, "Doesn't that place look simply gloomy."

"I think it looks pretty cool," I said.

The building in the middle is the May bulding.  I was a resident on 2-May
in 1985.  The building is connected to the Goodman building, on the right.
In the background you can see the old NJH building that was empty when
I was a patient there in 1985.  
"No, I mean that building." He pointed down. Where he was pointing I could see the tarred roof of another building. I knew the name of that place: it was the May building. It was three stories high. I had been on the 3rd floor many times for PFT testing. I avoided the 2nd floor, though. Not only because it was gloomy, but because that's where all the bullies lived. And of course I was a bully magnet.

"You mean 2-May?" I said. A shiver jumped up my spine and shivered through my veins. I remembered sitting in the office of my counselor,Ric, and making him promise me I wouldn't have to ever go there. "Yes, that's a very gloomy place. I wouldn't want to be caught dead over there."

"Yeah, me neither." If you were looking at the 7th story of the Goodman building at that moment looking inside the window of the boy's rooms you would have seen the pathetic sight of two boys looking out with jaws agape and dreamy. Then you would have seen the eyes of the taller, plumper boy start to water. The other boy, the short and skinny one -- me --, said, "What's wrong?"

"Oh, nothing.... well, I think I'm going to have to go there. They say I need more time."



"I'm sorry."

"No. It's okay. I will just accept it. I will just go down there and serve my time."

I didn't know what to say to Sean. I felt so bad for him. I knew he was a little weird, but I never imagined that he was a psychotic kid too. He wasn't, though. He was just a normal asthmatic who probably got weird the same way I got weird.

Of course, what is weird? Weird is when you do things different from everyone else because you have asthma. Weird is when you spend time inside reading while the other kids are playing. Weird is when your best comrade is your mother because you're unable to go on family outings with your dad and brothers. Weird is when your nose drips because of allergies, and you're a chronic mouth breather, and you have to sit on the bench reading a book while the other kids play baseball on the diamond where dust puffs every time someone slides into second base or home.

Yes, weird is not really that bad of a thing. As an adult we realize that we are all weird in our own way. We all have things that we do that are different than everyone else. But when we are kids, weirdness stands out like the lightning bold scar on Harry Potter's head.

So, in that regard, none of the troubled kids who were sent to 2-May were weird at all, but normal boys and girls who unfortunately had severe and chronic asthma and were trying to make their way in this "weird" world. Because asthma limits what we can do, we become sheltered, anxious, lose confidence, social skills, and even physical ability to perform certain tasks. This kind of stress also limits our ability to care for our own selves, to take our meds, to pay attention to our early signs of asthma, and generally take care of ourselves.

To regain these skills, it sometimes takes time. It requires occupational therapy, physical therapy, group therapy, time with counselors and even psychologists to regain simple skills that come normal to those who do not have a chronic disease such as asthma. This is what we did at the asthma hospital. At the asthma hospital we are not weird, we are only weird at home, at school, and every where else.

But you could not tell that to either of the boys looking out the window of 7-Goodman that morning.

A few weeks later my friend Dean was sent down there. Then my room mate Eric, of whom was busted for smoking pot in the tunnels while out on a pass more than once. Eric was my original room mate. He had that room by the window, his side of the room was a trash heap from hell, he refused to shut off the radio at night, and his avoiding of me was all right by me. So when he went to 2-May to spend time with the bullies and losers, that was also fine by me. I figured he deserved that place. He deserved what hell served up, or so I thought then.

But me? I will never go down there. I'm going home soon. I knew I was going home soon because every other day I received another letter from my mom encouraging me with a note saying something like, "Look at the bright side, you have one week out of the way," or, "Hey, you only have three weeks left," and then, "Rick, you only have one week to go." Then, finally, the ultimate, "Your dad is going to come up and visit you next weekend, and hopefully soon after that I'll come and take you home for good."

By this time on 7-Goodman I was no longer the rookie. In fact, it was closing in on the end of April and I was now the senior patient -- none of the other kids had been there longer than me. I was comfortable, and I liked every thing about 7-Goodman. The best part was, by this time all the bullies were either discharged or sent to 2-May. I started to make some really good friends, and I was even getting along with the kids who once picked on me. .

By this time I also earned the privilege of having a private room with a TV. I had my room decorated really cool with all the cards sent to me, and my bulleton board was decorated cool with cartoons I clipped from newspapers. Even the girls admitted I had the coolest room in the place.

We made many trips to the mall, and I was on honors level and earned the right to go anywhere I wanted in the mall, or wherever we visited. Since I wasn't much of a socializer (something that hasn't changed much), I'd often skip the movie and instead find a shop so I could purchase 1985 Topps baseball cards, then go home (home?) and spend time alone in my room shifting through them. I'd say it was home because my fellow asthmatics were my brothers, and the nurses and counselors by now were my moms and dad's.

You know it's funny, but there was one nurse named Lee that nobody liked. She kind of said it how it was, and most kids didnt' like that. But I liked here. I liked her a lot. In fact, she was my favorite nurse. She was tall a bit older than my prime nurse Kathy and Wendy and... well, she liked to give hugs, and I liked that. And, to be honest, I think she knew I liked her. Whenever I needed a hug I saught out Lee. And, considering I was 3,000 miles away from my home in Shoreline, Michigan, I was homesick a lot, and a hug came in handy.

Yet I digress. Anyway, things couldn't be better. NJH/NAC was my home -- 7-Goodman was my home.

I sat in my room one weekend evening near the end of May 1985 sorting my baseball cards (I had accumulated quite a collection by now), when there was a soft knock on my door. It was Ric. I was happy to see him as always. He wasn't so much a social worker, he was a friend. So I had no ominous thoughts as we walked back to his office.

"Today we're calling your parents," he said. A feeling of joy rose in me, "Finally! I'm going home! Finally!"

"Rick," mom said over the phone, "We really want you to come home, But..." my heart sunk right there. I knew what was coming. She might as well have stopped talking right there, because the world went black at that moment. I felt like a dead weight sitting there on that familiar chair while scenes from that Poe movie danced through my head. She continued "...the doctors think you could use more time."

She continued talking, trying to soothe me, but to no avail. She mentioned Willie as one of the main reasons for them convincing her. "You know, Willie, your friend, went home and then he died of asthma. We don't want that to happen to you. We want you to come home so bad, but..."

Mom kept talking, trying to soothe me, but I wasn't listening. In fact, her words eventually drifted off into the distance, and I dropped the phone. I was shaking uncontrollably now.

"You okay, Rick?" Ric said.

I didn't answer. I was crying. I was 15-years-old and I was crying like a baby. Eventually I muscled a squeak: "Why?"

He gave an answer, yet I didn't listen. I said, "You promised I wouldn't have to go. You said I wouldn't have to go to that place. You promised." I was looking him square in the eyes. He said nothing. He ended the phone call.

Ric was my friend. I trusted him. He was such a good friend he even took me to a Denver Zephyr's baseball game. I had the picture to prove it. We were pals more so than patient-counselor. How could he do this to me? How could he betray me? And my prime nurse Kathy told me I was doing so well, and my doctor said my asthma was getting better.

However, while all the signs until May 1985 indicated to me I was about to go home, my doctors had other thoughts, as you can see from what was recorded in my medical records after 4 months on 7-Goodman:

"During this admission Rick has had frequent wheezing despite significant steroid dosages. He has marked lability, and his ability to become quite obstructed remains a primary concern. Pulmonary function testing done on March 28, 1985 showed extreme hyperinflation and airflow obstruction as baseline values with an excellent response to bronchodilators. In light of Rick's high risk asthma status, self-care and optimal control of bronchospasm are critical. Rick's extreme anxiety complicates his disease, and inhibits his self control and ability to care for himself. In dealing with Rick's anxiety, psychotropic medications were begun, and the decision made to transfer to the 2-May Unit to address the etiology of his anxiety and to improve his self-care prior to discharging him home."

I trudged sadly back to the nurses desk. I picked up my Theophylline and knocked it down dry. The nurse said something, but I didn't care. Whether I stayed on honors level at this point didn't matter -- I was going to hell. I grabbed my mail from a box next to the nurses station and started to my room.

"We also have a box for you," she said. I grabbed it and sauntered to my room. I ripped it open and found inside a model of an old car and an envelope. I ripped open the envelope. A note inside read: "This is to help you pass the time. I'm a friend of your parents. You probably don't know me, but when I was a kid I broke my leg and had to spend a long time in a hospital, so I kind of know what it's like. I hope this helps you pass the time. I also hope to see you upon your return soon."

I loved getting letters like this from people I didn't know. My aunt Dolly, grandma, my mom, and my aunt Virgie wrote me letters -- lots of letters. My cousins wrote letters too, and my friends and classmates from home. Seriously, I had so many letters my trunk was full of them. One of my friends noted to me once, "Why don't you just throw those away."

"No," I said, "I want to write about my experiences here some day. I'm keeping everything."

"Well that's stupid," he said. Well, thankfully as I write this I didn't throw those letters away. Now who'se the fool?

Dome of the letters started to repeat themselves, and the stuff they started writing kind of goofy. But it didn't matter. I appreciated it sooooo much. It was so cool to get letters, and boxes, and whatever. It was this mail time that made it feel more like home, especially at holiday season.

About the 30th letter from my aunt Dolly she wrote, "This is a goofy letter, yes it is, because it gets hard to think of stuff when you write every day." It was true, she wrote every day. The truth is, I didnt' care what she wrote, it was the fact she did. I responded to all the letters I got that day. To the lady who sent me the old car, I wrote:

“Thanks a million for the models, for I love to make them. That’s just the perfect thing to keep me busy when I have nothing else to do here.

“As you may know, I am stable now, so the staff here feels I should stay here a while longer so I can get my asthma under better control. Mainly, the only reason I am going to the other floor is because my asthma is hard to control. They will try better medicines.

“Well, anyhow, the floor now will be 2-May starting on 4-24-85. A lot of kids are there for psychiatric or family problems (stress), but I don’t have those problems. Stable patients can’t stay on 7-Goodman.

"Anyhow, you probably don’t care anyway. (If you do my mom knows all about it). “Well, I’ll probably see you when I get home, which I hope is soon. Rick Frea.”
I kind of lied in that letter, because I never put together a model in my life. But I was so happy to get it, especially at that moment. I stuffed the letter in an envelope, licked it, put a stamp on it, and never sent it out lest I wouldn't still have it here next to me on my desk. I didnt' send it out because of what happened next.
To be continued on Tuesday, January 5....

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