Waiting for Light to Come

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It’s no fun to feel sick – no fun to have an upset stomach or a stuffy nose. And getting hurt is no fun either. Burning your finger, banging your head, scraping your knee – not fun. You just want someone to take the bad feeling away. And nobody can do that. But if they see that you need help, they can try to help you.

Sometimes people get sick or hurt in their brains. It can make them feel mixed up, angry, or sad. It can make them act strangely. They can feel terrible, but nobody can see why. Their problem is invisible. It’s no fun. And it’s hard for people to help them.

One summer, when Marilyn Banks was a very young woman, she took a summer job in a mental hospital. This hospital took care of people whose brains were sick or hurt. During World War II, many Quakers worked in mental hospitals. The hospitals needed their help because so many doctors and nurses left to go to the war. During that time, the Quakers learned a lot about helping people with mental problems. After the war, they set up jobs for young people like Marilyn, to teach them how to help, too.

Marilyn and eight new friends spent the summer of 1952 working in Oregon State Hospital. They had lots of reasons to take this summer job at a mental hospital: They were curious. They wanted to learn. They wanted to help. And they wanted to do something hard. They had read about mental hospitals in the news. Some of these hospitals were scary places. The old ones used to be called “insane asylums.” The sick people in the old insane asylums were often treated badly.

When Marilyn and her friends first got to the hospital, they found that the front parts of the hospital were nice. The doctors and nurses and other workers treated the patients kindly. They worked hard to help the patients get better.

Then Marilyn and her friends went to the back parts of the hospital. Those places were not so nice. Those places were called “the back wards.” The patients in the back wards were the people with the biggest problems. They were people who might never get well. The hospital workers in the back wards often got upset with the patients there. They would scream at them, and boss them around, and sometimes hit them.

Marilyn and her friends decided to show that it was better to treat the patients kindly. One of their jobs was to dress a room full of women who didn’t remember how to get dressed.  Just like when a parent needs to help a little child, dressing time can be a time for a fight. The regular hospital workers hated this fight, but they had to do it every day. They fought with stiff, old arms and legs that wouldn’t go into sleeves and pant legs. They yelled at the patients, “Pay attention! Cooperate!” They just wanted dressing time to be over with. Marilyn and her friends decided to turn dressing time into a game. They spoke gently to the patients. They played hide-and-seek with old arms and legs. This made the job go faster and easier. Marilyn didn’t understand why the regular workers were so mean.

The young summer workers tried lots of ways to be kinder than the regular workers. They used their imaginations to try and make everything fun. Going for walks outside with patients, feeding them, washing their hair – these were all jobs that they could turn into games. Marilyn used her imagination to have long talks with patients who never, ever said one word back to her. Kindness did not always make the jobs go faster and easier. But sometimes it did.

Then Marilyn started to understand why the regular workers acted so mean. She started making friends with some of them, and she learned about their lives. They lived at the hospital. They had nice rooms there. But they worked so many hours every day that they almost never left the hospital. And they got paid very little money for their work. So even if they left the hospital, they couldn’t afford to buy nice things or go nice places. It’s like they were trapped in the hospital. And all the doctors and nurses bossed them around. And they had too much work to do. They had to scrub the floors, make the beds, dump pee out of the bedpans, and do all the other cleaning. Plus they had to feed, wash, and dress all the patients every day. And they had help the doctors and nurses with treating the patients. And finally, they had to try to make the patients happy. No wonder that last job was hard for them to do!

After her summer job ended, Marilyn helped the Quakers with American Friends Service Committee try to make the jobs better for workers at Oregon State Hospital. They got the hospital to give the workers more free time. And they got the hospital to make a place for the workers to talk with the doctors about the patients. These changes made the hospital a better place for everyone.

Many thousands of people with mental problems still live in hospitals today. They are waiting for the light of healing to come to them. They still need our help to make the hospitals better for them while they wait. ~~~

  • Everyone has their own special way that they like other people to help them. What about you? When you feel hurt or confused, what is the best way for other people to help you?
  • What do you know about what it is like to be in the hospital?
  • If you had to live a long time in a hospital, how would you like the hospital to be? What things would it have there for you to use? What activities would it have for you to do?

This story was adapted from pages 109-112 of A Western Quaker Reader, published by Western Friend (2000).

49-MentalHospitals.pdf