I don’t know if you believe in ghosts or spirits or whatever New Age term you’re supposed to use for dead people these days…but I do. Maybe it’s because both of my grandmothers would talk of “angels” when I was a kid or maybe I’m just naive. I’m not sure I would go so far as to say I believe in encounters like those in Poltergeist or The Conjuring, but who am I to say definitively whether or not they exist?
I’ve heard some people say they’ve known children who have come into contact with departed family or friends. In fact, I have a cousin who as a two or three-year-old claimed a nice lady dressed in white used to sit in the chair in her bedroom. Another cousin would beg to sleep in his parents’ room, frightened by “sparkles” and a man who would tell him not to be afraid and that he would be safe under his protection. My suspicion is that those who are new to this planet or those not long for this world are more susceptible to such meetings.
This is a ghost story. Not the kind you would tell around the campfire for jumps and scares, but if you’re a little skeptical about visitors from the afterlife, maybe this story will convince you of the possibility of spirits. Maybe you’ll come away from this thinking I’m just as “crazy” as the people I care for every day (although we don’t like to use that term in my profession). I’ll let you make your own assumptions.
Disclaimer: This is a true story.
Really (Well, okay. It’s mostly true.). As such, all names (including my place of employment and its location) have been changed and some details have been omitted entirely. Additionally, some details of patients’ lives outside of their respective hospitalizations have also been changed to protect the identity of those involved in this story. We already suffer through hours of education on patient confidentiality at my hospital. I don’t want to see anyone endure more online learning on the subject on my account.
The Ellen James building is the oldest original building belonging to a far-reaching hospital campus in a busy city which cannot be named. It dates back at least 90 years and its initial purpose was to serve rich hospital patrons recovering from “exhaustion” and other early 20th century ailments. Currently, “The El J” is home to the Psychiatric Department’s inpatient units and I will be celebrating my fifth year work-avisary there this month.
After working as a Mental Health Professional on the general adult unit, I decided to take a position on the 18-bed geriatric unit, where I then worked for over a year. While I can’t recall the names of all the patients who entered through the two sets of magnetically locked doors (“geris” are notorious for their elopement attempts), the two men I am going to tell you about are among my most unforgettable patients for a very strange reason.
For the entirety of his time on the Ellen James geriatric psychiatry unit, a man named Hugh spent his days in a darkened room with the curtains drawn over the single window, the glow of the TV lighting up the corners of the pale yellow walls. He was constantly moaning and was easily startled when the nurses and aides helped to bathe or feed him. Though he was unable to articulate most of his concerns, he always appeared particularly anxious whenever he was brought to the narrow bathroom or when fresh clothes were being retrieved from the closet. He slept for hours on end, even when family members came to visit or he was wheeled out in a recliner into the common room for group activities.
On the geriatric unit, my day’s duties were split between running groups that encouraged our older patients to socialize with one another and assisting them with everyday tasks like making phone calls or filling out their menus. During those less busy hours, I would sit and talk to patients, listening to them recall their favorite pastimes and stories of yore. Some stories were funny, some sad and sometimes I struggled to make sense of them at all. Some patients would tell me they saw and heard things that were not there and I would try my best comfort them and assure them of their safety. Mostly, I would try to provide them with some sense of what was present and what was not… if they could be convinced of such.
One morning, I came down the brightly lit hallway with a stack full of menus under my arm, preparing to check-in with my patients and decide which activities would suit their needs that day. The CNAs were helping to wash and dress patients before breakfast while the nurses were administering the day’s first doses of medications. As I passed by room 333 I heard Hugh yelling from his bed. “Get out!” he cried repeatedly.
“Giving you a hard time?” I quipped to one CNA as I glanced into the open door. Hugh was stabbing his index finger at the bathroom door, his eyes fixed hard upon the wall.
“There’s no one there, Mr. Francis,” she said in an attempt to soothe him as she combed his stark white hair. I placed Hugh’s menu on his bedside table and told the CNAs I would return after he’d had a chance to eat his breakfast.
Sometime later, Hugh was being fed his breakfast as I was helping to select menu items with a visually impaired patient when he began insisting someone in his room “get out!”
“I just want to help you eat your breakfast,” the CNA insisted.
“Tell him to leave!” he demanded.
“There’s no one else here, Hugh,” she said as he continued to jab his finger at her. Her statement did little to calm the disturbed patient, if anything it made him shout even louder. In an effort to pacify him, she asked “who’s here?”
“Bill,” he answered incredulously.
“There’s no Bill here, Hugh. It’s just me and Linda. If you’re done with breakfast, let’s get you cleaned up for group.”
As I was writing my progress notes for the day, I chuckled to myself. Our patients were prone to picking up random pieces of a conversations and ruminating on them; a name, a town, a line from a popular TV show. Sometimes, they repeated it in an echolalic fashion and other times they become convinced it was a real part of their lives. But we hadn’t had a patient named Bill in ages…
Hugh’s family came to visit him just as lunch was being served. I took his tray to his room and greeted his family who came to see him almost every day. Hugh was not his usual self. Normally he was quietly confused but would brighten up a bit when he saw a familiar face in the room. On this particular day, Hugh was visibly on edge and refusing to eat. “Get out!” he called, slamming his hands on the armrests of the plush chair.
“It’s Anne, honey,” his wife tried to explain. “We’ve come to visit with you for a bit.”
“Get out of here!”
“Maybe we’d better wait till he–”
“He’s over there!”
His wife looked at me concernedly. It was not uncommon for Hugh to forget his wife’s name but he had never before shown signs of visual hallucinations.
“I can have his nurse come see you,” I offered. Perhaps she could explain this new set of symptoms. Hugh continued to try to force an unseen man from the room.
“Tell Bill to leave me alone!” His family looked increasingly alarmed.
“Who’s Bill, dear?” his wife wondered aloud.
“Mr. Brown!” he shouted clearly.
My mouth dried up immediately as a sudden chill washed over me. How could this be merely a coincidence? If Hugh had mentioned a first or last name in passing (two very common names, I might add), I could brush it off. If Hugh had been lying in a bed in any other room, I could ignore it…But Bill Brown had been discharged shortly after I had finished my orientation. Some of my coworkers would not even be able to recognize the name. Bill Brown had been dead for almost two years.
Bill was an intelligent man who had once been a successful business owner and was in the vice-like grip of early-onset Alzheimer’s. He had been quite sick for a number of years and removed from several area nursing homes due to his bouts of agitation which escalated quickly when he was confused. Bill could be irritable especially when he could not recall his weekly visits with his adult children or their frequent phone calls to the unit’s patient phone. He was so volatile at times that he had to be moved from a shared room to a single occupancy. Room 333.
Due to his often disruptive behavior and aggressive outbursts, Bill’s children made the painful decision to move him to the only long-term care facility available to him: the state-run psychiatric hospital. Bill would spend his final months there, later succumbing to the complications of the disease that had robbed him of his memory and inhibitions…
I met the widened eyes of Mary, our CNA, and knew that Hugh’s proclamation that Bill Brown was in his room had struck her too.
“Bill Br–” she muttered, in disbelief.
“But…” I nodded robotically in her direction. Hugh was not hallucinating after all.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, rushing toward the nursing station.
“Barbara, you are not going to believe this,” I stated simply. The nurse smiled warmly at me.
“Mr. Franklin is sharing a room with Bill Brown.” Her mouth fell open with surprise…
Perhaps Bill felt more at home on the Ellen James geriatric ward than anywhere else. He could not fully remember his life before the Alzheimer’s disease took hold and I can only assume his confusion and accompanying frustration worsened when he arrived at the state hospital. Bill was in our care for almost two years and while we wished him well as he was wheeled by stretcher into a waiting ambulance, we knew the fate he was destined for. In truth, I have not seen his pearly apparition, but I feel there is a strong possibility that Bill’s lonely spirit still lingers in the halls of our ward. I choose to believe he is harmless, but-as I have told you-he likes to make himself known to other clients in room 333.
I for one am not afraid of Mr. Brown. I think he simply wants to be in the company of people he knew took care of him. I can only hope that one day he will find peace in the life he had in his own home and accept the life he was resigned to after he left us and that he returns to his family or Heaven or wherever you believe people go after they die. But who am I to say there’s such a thing as afterlife and ghosts? Who am I to say there isn’t?