The Last Shift at the Sanitarium

When the Job Became Incompatible with the Rest of My Life, I Retreated to Another

Riverslea, Homewood Sanitarium, Guelph, Ontario

[Some readers asked how I came to work at Homewood Sanitarium and why I left. Here are the answers.]

The end of the university year catapulted toward me. Like most frosh, I had begun my summer job search months earlier—so far, without success. Bob, a fellow psychology major, asked if I might like to work at Homewood. His aunt was the personnel director there; he could put in a good word for me. Although I grew up in Galt, a short drive from the sanitarium, I had never heard of the place. I did some research, included Bob’s name in my cover letter, secured an interview with the aunt, and began work as a nurses’ assistant the first week of May.

In 1967, student nurses were required to spend some of their practical hours in institutions for the mentally ill. That first summer, several informed me that, compared with other psychiatric hospitals in Ontario, Homewood was paradise. A recent letter from my ninety-year-old pen pal confirmed their observations. Pat wrote:

As a student nurse (1949-52) at Victoria Hospital in London Ontario, I spent three months at the old London Psychiatric Hospital. It was a big old grey building up a long walk from Dundas Street. Now gone—thankfully.

One ward I worked on—a women’s ward—had bare pine floors. No finish. Cracks between the boards. One day the patients were fed rotten food. “You know what” [gushed] from them all over the floor and between the cracks. My job—just to keep mopping up the mess.

The beds in the “bed-room” were jammed up close together—just a small cabinet separating them. Windows cracked and broken. COLD!

Another women’s ward. Our job at 7 PM was to put night clothes on the patients and they were then placed in a locked room—to mill around until bedtime.

And yes, I had to hold down people receiving electric shock treatment.

In the 50’s there was a movie called “The Snake Pit” with Olivia de Havilland. It was a pretty true picture of a psychiatric hospital.

The Snake Pit debuted in 1948. A similar themed movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, premiered in 1975. A few of its scenes resonated with some of my experiences at Homewood, but moreso with the tales related by the student nurses.

In spite of the fact that Homewood’s treatments were more advanced and more curative than other asylums, no institution, no matter how prestigious, no matter how forward-thinking its programs, is free from problems. For me, one of those problems related to staff. Mrs Woodward was an older head nurse who worked solely on B2. I had befriended one of short-term patients on that ward. Sandy was a vet student at the university of Guelph. She developed paralysis in both legs and had to wear braces. As a result, the university required her to abandon the large animal program in favour of small animal doctoring. Devastated by the loss of her dream, Sandy sank into a deep depression and was admitted to Homewood. After a few weeks of therapy, Sandy’s mental health improved. She looked forward to returning to her studies. One afternoon, I stopped short in the doorway of Sandy’s room. Mrs Woodward was inside, alone with Sandy. Nurse W accused Sandy of faking her paralysis. Christ-like, she ordered her to remove the braces and walk! Sandy, frightened, obeyed the order. Stumbled a few feet. Fell to the floor in tears. As Mrs Woodward strode from the room, she glared at me…a smug and satisfied.

Two interns from Ireland did their psychiatric practicum at Homewood. In a lunch-time conversation, one of them mentioned how dissimilar staff assignments in their homeland were compared with Canada. Nurses rotated jobs. They worked on the wards for three months, then were assigned other duties for three months. Over time, they said, if someone worked for long periods with the mentally ill, one’s own sanity could be jeopardized. Is that what happened to Mrs Woodward? No wonder that, after my four months each summer, I was eager to leave Homewood and return to academia.

The first two months of my fourth, and final, summer began as usual with shifts on B 2, 3 and 4. Although I had graduated in June, I chose to take an additional university course to up my chances of securing a teaching post. I requested certain shifts and successfully juggled nursing and coursework. That was, until I was posted to the night shift at Riverslea.

Riverslea stood apart from the other mansions that comprised the Homewood complex. A majestic Edwardian edifice, it sat at the bottom of the hill alongside the Speed River. Built in 1848 by James Goldie for his wife and their eight children, it was later bought by Homewood.

I had never been inside the building and heard nothing of its residents except that they were, in some way, “privileged.” For my first, and only, night shift, I arrived at 10:30 PM, parked close to the grand house and proceeded inside. The change-of-shifts meeting took place in the library. What magnificence! A grand room lined with dark wood shelves heavy with tomes. Damask drapes. Sumptuous sofas. And a plush carpet underfoot. One of the privileges that the patients enjoyed was to live in such luxury.

The nurse-supervisor, an attractive, youngish woman, and I were the only overnight staff. Riverslea housed about a dozen patients. All had retired an hour earlier. The evening report included nothing of note. There was little to do except to be there if someone required help. A soon as the afternoon staff left, pretty-nurse announced, “I am going to sleep on one of the sofas. Wake me up six.” Although taken aback, I complied. She was in charge. She could do what she wanted. But, how unfair. Not only did she get to sleep, she would be paid three times my night’s salary to do it.

For a time I wandered. Although soft yellow light bathed the wide corridors, eerie shadows crept up the walls behind over-stuffed settees and Tiffany-styled lamps on mahogany tables. Heavy draperies trapped the gloom. Unpleasant memories of Miss Havisham’s house arose. No cobwebs and ruined wedding feast, but the residents at Riverslea were patients in a mental hospital.

I wished I were a coffee drinker. How I relished the fragrance of that brew. Too bad that my ingesting it caused nausea and tremors. The strong tea I drank had no effect on my alertness. The only other time I had stayed up all night, a young man and I had sat on a rock and watched the sun rise over Lake Muskoka. It’s easier to stay awake with a friend by your side.

At five AM, I vomited. At six AM I awoke sleeping beauty. At eight AM I attended an unsuccessful job interview. A ten AM I fell asleep in a lecture hall.

The following day, I asked Bob’s aunt if I might be exempted from night shifts. “Not possible,” she said. I resigned my position.

**********

In the twelfth grade I worked part-time serving tables in the dining room of a respectable local hotel. The hostess, Miss Priscilla Heyboer, an elderly British woman, insisted that every detail of proper service be observed. Serve from the left; take away from the right. Cutlery one inch from the edge of the table. Linen serviettes folded in such a way that they unfurled swan-like when a diner pick one up by its near corner. We were forbidden to sit down in our white uniforms because, “No one wants to look at a creased bum.” I bought two front-buttoned uniforms. At break times, I opened the bottom half of the closures and sat on a tall stool. Once, two diners at a small table ordered a pot of tea with their meal. I set the pot as near as possible to its “ideal” place. Miss Heyboer emerged from the shadows, gave me a “You-know-better-than-that” smile and gave the couple an apologetic “She’s-new-here” smile, then shifted the teapot one inch to the left.

Over the years, when I needed to make decent money fast, I returned to serving. With the precise training I had, it was easy to find work. I was over-qualified for most of the places where I applied, but that didn’t bother the owners. When I left Homewood in July, Bobby, of Bobby’s Diner, hired me on the spot—even when I told him I couldn’t come in until noon. The place closed at eight. I never worked another night shift.