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March 3, 2010

They can kill you, but they can’t eat you

There was this kid I’ve known since high school: 22 years old, chronically unemployed and a month’s rent away from homelessness. His father drank himself to death. His mother disappeared. And his sister, who’d gotten him through his formative years, had just OD’d in Florida. I suppose it was more than he could take. He called me to drive him to a hospital in the East End that I can’t, for legal purposes, name in this column.

Upon our arrival, they did not frisk him or check his bag, which was big enough to conceal a submachine gun or even a small chainsaw. The painfully positive nurse assigned to him called the psychiatrist, who ordered him to begin taking a sedative. Upon waking, he instinctively patted his jean pockets for his Marlboros and a lighter, which since he was not frisked, he found. He smoked in the bathroom, exhaling into the air vent. Still cloudy-headed from the Seroquel, he left his lighter on the toilet lid. The morning nurse was waiting in his room when he returned from breakfast. She asked him if he had been smoking, and he confessed. She thanked him for his honesty.

The punishment for his breach of hospital rules: EYE VIEW.

This means the patient cannot be out of the sight of a nurse or doctor at any time. Now you’re probably thinking they gave him his own personal nurse, a buxom blonde who administered foot and butt massages on command. Sadly, that was not the case. They made him sleep in the hallway in a swivel chair and would not turn off the unforgiving fluorescent lights. And they continued to pump him full of Seroquel.

He didn’t sleep for five days and was dead tired every minute of it.

On the sixth day, he begged his doctor, whom he only got to see for five minutes each morning — the other time was spent watching soap operas — to either let him sleep in a bed or release him.

“It was just a lighter, and I owned up to it,” the kid could barely speak or sit upright.

“You could’ve burned the entire hospital down,” the doctor said.

“I need to sleep. I just wanted to smoke.”

“I think you want to leave just so you can smoke.”

“Yeah. That’s it. It’s definitely not the five days without sleep or my back, which I’m sure will never be the same.”

“If you didn’t want to be here, you shouldn’t have run around telling everyone you were going to kill yourself.”

The doctor closed his file and buttoned his Armani coat. The kid couldn’t help thinking, the cost of this asshole’s suit could provide three or four of my fellow patients with the help they need for months. And exactly who is he dressing to impress anyway? Most of these poor bastards are drooling or walking like zombies up and down the hallways.

“So I should’ve just killed myself is what you’re saying?” the kid asked.

“This conversation is over. I’ll speak with you at the same time tomorrow morning, and we’ll review your progress.”

“Where’d you get your degree in psychiatry? Auschwitz?”

The doctor stood and our hero lunged at him. He got one punch in, to the kidney, before the orderlies took him down.

This was six years ago. I hope this hospital has changed. I hope there is no more EYE VIEW or that they at least turn out some of those lights and wheel out a bed for the patient in question. And I hope that particular doctor lost his license and is a patient somewhere, drooling and lost like the poor souls he looked down upon.

Despite experiencing so much pain and loss at the hands of people we are all supposed to trust, our hero is still alive. He is employed. He has a woman who loves him. And he pays his rent on time. For anyone who has been through anything like this, when it gets bad, really bad, maybe you’ll think of my old friend and something he used to say, which I never understood until the day he got out of that hospital. They can kill you, but they can’t eat you.

They can’t eat you, because you’re too damn tough.