Monday, 6 August 2007

The Staff of the Night Shift

Have you ever noticed the type of people who work permanently on night duty? They are totally different to the day-workers. The night shift is almost completely populated by misfits. If you are 7' tall (that's 2.1366 m for you metricated folks) or excessively rotund; if you're missing a limb or two or you've got six fingers on each hand; if your face has the eyes, ears nose and mouth in slightly the wrong place or you are a shy Adonis/Aphrodite...why not become nearly invisible by joining the night shift? And it makes sense, doesn't it? If you are having trouble fitting in with a normal day-time job, why not go for a night-time job?

Thus it was, a couple of weeks ago, when I visited the psychiatric ward at Exeter hospital (about 75 minutes' drive) at 9 p.m. That's the time when the night shift takes over from the day shift. Once I had managed admission to the ward through the 3 locked, reinforced glass, entrance doors, I was greeted by a long-haired, cadaverous midget.

"You're Colm's dad? I'll get him for you," he said while ushering me into a stuffy, dimly lit, windowless room about the size of a double coffin (is there such a thing?...). The room was populated by two utilitarian chairs with no sharp edges. Not normally claustrophobic, I loitered in the doorway to prevent being entombed in the tiny room. Luckily, Colm wandered down the corridor at that moment. The vertically challenged member of staff disappeared noiselessly while Colm and I went into the visiting room - leaving the door open!

"Hi dad," said Colm. "Where's Marie?"

I told him what he already knew - Marie's agoraphobia had prevented her from coming to the hospital.

Colm has severe learning difficulties and normally lives in a community of similar adults. However, he had been becoming less happy there in recent times, but due to a lack of competent vocal skills, he had been unable to explain to anyone the reason(s) why. His frustration had eventually led to a bout of "challenging behaviour" (i.e. an uncontrollable temper tantrum) and when staff couldn't handle the situation, he was committed to a psychiatric ward at the nearest hospital. He wasn't mentally ill - it was just the only secure place he could, temporarily, go.

Colm is only 5 months younger than Marie, but right from the start she has been absolutely brilliant with him. In return, she has become Colm's most important person in the whole world, after me. He showed her how much he thought of her when he started sending her flowers and a card every Mother's Day (he has never sent them to his real mother); which caused Marie to shed a few tears he first time this happened. Colm accepted Marie's agoraphobic condition in a child-like way right from the start, and Marie accepted Colm for what he is, without question, too. It's just one of her many, lovable, good points.

So Colm didn't just want to see me, after he got "locked up" - he wanted to see Marie as well. But Marie's agoraphobic head objected, and, as usual, it won.

Colm and I approached the ward reception desk, where I wanted to obtain permission to take him out for a while. There were quite a few people congregated in the area and I couldn't tell which people were staff and which were patients. None of them looked ill...but none of them looked entirely "normal", either! Eventually a man with a seriously oversized head (surely he had problems balancing?) asked me if he could help. I told him what I (and Colm) wanted, and he went into a small glass-panelled office and conversed with a black-haired female. She looked up and then made her way to Colm and me. Her black, full-length, fitted, crushed velvet dress and her unsmiling, deathly pale face made her look a bit like Morticia from The Addams Family - except that she wasn't so good-looking. She told me that we could go out for an hour.

We didn't do much - just cruised around Exeter. Colm pointed places out; "McDonald's there, dad" or "new cinema, dad", but it was all that Colm wanted. He returned to the hospital willingly, and, I later found out, told anyone that would listen that he had been out with his dad.

Once it was established that Colm could leave the hospital, Marie felt able to accompany me on my next trip. We pulled right up to the entrance to the psychiatric ward just after 9 p.m., occupying the space normally reserved for ambulances. This time the member of staff who admitted me (Marie stayed in the car) looked like an escaped convict, wearing a very clean, meticulously ironed, much-washed, used-to-be-black hospital outfit. But when he smiled, a different person broke through. Colm was waiting for us so he signed himself out and off we went for another successful evening.

Marie was quite relaxed when we returned to the hospital, so when Colm said that he wanted to show me some papers that a "lady" (who turned out to be an occupational therapist) had left, she was ok about staying in the car while I went in with him.

A very old, hook-nosed woman with a stoop let us in. Colm went off to get the papers and some of the patients (at least, I think they were patients - the staff don't seem to have any uniforms or name-badges) decided to strike up conversation with me. The general opinion was that Colm was a nice young man. One young lady who looked totally spaced out told me that Colm was "sorted". Another - a very attractive, blonde, early-twenties, normal-looking woman (so she definitely wasn't staff) - said to me in a thick eastern European accent "...Colm has enough intelligence to make small electric cars." That was a difficult statement to answer! But fortunately Colm reappeared, and after looking at his papers, I left.

Two of Colm's sisters have also visited him. One, Colleen, took him to see "Transformers" at the "new" cinema, so he is quite content in the hospital. Soon he is to go to a new home nearer me and the rest of the family.

I shall miss seeing the staff on the night shift...


Ruby said...

Hi Robert & Marie
I'm so glad to hear that Colm is getting better and will be living closer to you.

Its funny I was talking to my psych today and said I would love to get a night job where I can hide away from everyone and just do my job, I wonder I will turn into one these people that you have described... scary


Robert said...

Hi Ruby!

Several people have told me that they too find the night staff to be a strange bunch. "Creepy" was a common comment.

I can't imaging you becoming creepy!