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Location DB > United States > Pennsylvania > Philadelphia > Philadelphia State Hospital aka Byberry > An insiders view

Story Info
Wed, Nov 17th, 2004
posted by PAexplorations
An insiders view

We never punished or retaliated"
Dr. Ward Miles, WWII CO
Ward Miles grew up a Quaker; he was granted CO status and shipped off to a work camp. As the war proceeded, he went to work in a state mental hospital in Philadelphia. After the war, he became a family doctor at Group Health Cooperative. When I arrived at Byberry, the Philadelphia state hospital, I would be there for the next 18 months. No longer sleeping in a tent, but in a dormitory room with double-decker single beds crammed together with a foot or 18 inches between. Clothes in a locker like a gym. A dining room with unremarkable food. There was also a women's unit, with eight to 10 young and older women who had volunteered to become attendants to show their solidarity. Alice Calder was one of them. She said that I was the first person she ever met from Oregon. She and I were married after the war. My work assignment was in B building, commonly known as the "violent ward." We had 350 patients including a restraint room of 20 or so patients in leather straps and cuffs. We had no private rooms or padded cells. The place was "run" by worker patients who did the cleaning, served the meals, and herded the patients. Doctors never came, unless someone died and needed to be pronounced dead. Nurses came once daily, to dress wounds and give a few medications for colds, etc. There were no drugs for mental illness. We had a number of patients with neuro-syphilis who had to be taken to the infirmary for spinal taps and shots of bismuth and mercury. Ross Roby (another CO) and I had the 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift, the second shift. The first shift was run by an old-line attendant who had an ex-boxer do beatings for discipline. The night chief attendant had patients strapped into the beds, and he would kick them out himself. Trying to run the shift in between these two on the basis of nonviolence was a challenge. One of us spent most of the shift time in the large day room, with 250 patients, breaking up fights or just watching. The other one was in the restraint room emptying urinals, feeding patients, and being cursed at - and hoping none of the angry younger patients got loose and jumped us. Gradually we were able to show the patients that we would not beat them, that we were honest and would protect them. It was all we could do to supervise worker patients, keep order, and satisfy our supervisors. There was a caged office near the main door where there were cards on each patient with a picture, some of them many years old. In time, Ross and I knew everyone by name. It was said no one else had done that. Our nonviolent approach worked, but at times patients had to be subdued for their own protection as well as others, but we never punished or retaliated. Sometimes I was frightened. There were episodes; once a worker patient, known as a very paranoid man, had become disturbed. He had wedged himself against the wall between two single beds in the corner of the basement. He was swinging a big push broom at any one who came near. We had been unable to persuade him to come out, and more and more patients were gathering to watch the attendants deal with the problem. I had two other attendants with me. I said, "I will go in first and grab him, and you come and get the broom away and help me subdue him." Unfortunately he got me on my back and tried to scratch my eyes out. The others got him under control but I had scratches around both of my eye sockets. It was awful having no treatment. Watching young patients with neuro-syphilis deteriorate was heartbreaking. Penicillin was soon to eradicate this horrible aspect of syphilis. After the war was over, we were held with no pay except $15 a month for toiletries and stamps. We were not eligible for any benefits: health care, educational grants such as the GI bill, or home loans. I did not know it at the time, but I was to develop tuberculosis during my first year in medical school. It was agreed that I had contracted it while at Byberry. I missed a year of school, but because I contracted TB in a state institution I was eligible for some vocational assistance. On June 15, 1946, almost three years to the day of my induction, I was discharged. Alice and I were married that day and soon headed west. I went to college and then back to Pennsylvania to medical school. Eight years later, with three children, we headed west to Seattle. My friend from Byberry, Ross Roby, became a psychiatrist. These three years were eventful for me and the world. I wanted to be a part of these events, but felt I could not play the part expected of most young men my age.

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