Pages Navigation Menu

The Chronic Ward (1972)

The Chronic Ward (1972)

©1972, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: Denny, Dallas. (1972). The chronic ward. Unpublished essay.

This is an accurate description of the wards at Central State Psychiatric Hospital in Nashville Tennessee in the early 1970s, when I worked there.



The Chronic Ward

By Dallas Denny


Smug white uniforms sit in the nurses’ station working crossword puzzles and speaking of their families. The nursing station doors— the doors with the swing-downs and the heavy wire mesh— are closed. Most of the doors on the ward are, in fact, not only closed, but locked. Gold and silver keys on chains attached to the belts of the uniforms open these doors. When the business in a room is concluded, the gold and silver keys re-lock its door. The bedrooms, dormitories which sleep twenty or more, are closed at eight-thirty in the morning, and, except for an hour-and-a-half in the afternoons, remain locked until eight at night.

Along the pale green walls of the day room are aligned a number of the chairs peculiar to mental hospitals. They are low, these chairs, with shiny metal arms and thick, spongy cushions with no spirit; they are either gray or pale yellow or pale green like the walls. The green-and-gray tile floor is clean except for little piles of cigarette ashes or shards of tobacco here and there near the chairs. These show only on the green tiles, but you can be sure that they’re on the gray tiles, too, waiting to be pushed away by a horde of lethargic sweepers at cleanup time.

The windows, latticed with thick metal slats, let sunshine, a most strange thing in this somber atmosphere, in, to fall in pale ribbons across the floor. Curtains the color of burlap adorn the upper halves of the windows.

Bare pipes are suspended from the cracked plaster of the ceiling, crossing and re-crossing at right angles. Right angles! For nothing must disturb the perfect perpendicular symmetry of the ward. A chair will not stay out of line for long. There is a sense of urgency, of displacement, until the ward is set right, the chair pushed squarely against the wall.

A vase is not complete without flowers; neither is the ward complete without occupants. They sit squarely in the chairs in the day room, shaven-headed and bare-footed. Several twitch continuously, as if they were being constantly, involuntarily, moved by tiny electric currents. An old man in a corner talks animatedly to himself. Another rolls two spark plugs back and forth in his hand. A man with a mismended hip stands in a yellow pool of urine.

There comes a knock on the door to the outside. A uniform grumbles, then gets up and opens it with a key. An elderly, fragile-locking man brings the trays for the patients’ lunch, deposits them, and exits, his hair haloed in a window as he trudges down the steps.

The food is pureed until it is of a mashed potatoes consis­tency, all of it. There are no forks, knives, or napkins—only spoons. The uniforms distribute the trays around the table, and then call the patients for lunch. The patients do not begin eating until the uniforms tell them they may do so, and then, given the go-ahead, either begin spooning the food down their throats mechan­ically, as if stoking a furnace, or voraciously, as if this bland offering were the high point of the day. The voracious spooners lick their trays, the mechanical spooners do not, but all finish; there is not an ounce of food left on any tray.

After lunch the patients gravitate to their chairs, where they sit mutely for the rest of the afternoon. At two p.m. the uniforms will give them cups of applesauce with tan and pink and green pills hidden within. At three p.m. the white uniforms will leave, when replaced by more of the same. The evening shift uniforms are told everything is all right.

Several hours later, as the setting sun throws its last feeble rays of light upon the floor and the patients are rounded up for supper, baths, meds, and then bed, everything will still be all right on the chronic ward.