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Thursday, April 5, 2012 08:09 pm

A ferry for the mentally ill

I could not sleep last night for quite awhile, thinking about her.

Limping carefully, the young woman in the faded blue scrubs and hooded sweat shirt put one sock-covered foot in front of the other, from the hospital room doorway to the wheelchair in the hall. It was as if she were crossing a bed of hot coals, but could not run, forced to feel each excruciating footfall. A nurse’s aide lightly placed her hands on the young woman’s left arm between elbow and wrist, hovering nearby to catch her if she fell, but letting her patient support herself.  

Successfully crossing the few feet from the doorway, the young woman’s slender right hand reached for the wheelchair’s armrest. She sat, the nurse’s aide gently guiding her.

Then I heard a tiny sound, like the distant whine of a small animal. The sound was plaintive, not uttered to attract attention, but simply a singular statement of internal pain.  

“OK, honey,” the nurse’s aide said. “This man is gonna take you to get you some help.”

The young woman did not respond. The nurse’s aide stepped in front of her, squatted and zipped up the hoodie. “It’s cold out there,” she said.

The trip to the ambulance bay outside the emergency department was silent, except for the clattering wheels of the chair, and the whoosh and clunk of the elevator doors opening, closing and opening again.

I glanced at my clipboard. The day before, the young woman had put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. It misfired. That’s all I learned by skimming the paperwork. That’s all I needed to know.

Outside, I opened the rear passenger door of the car and stepped away. The nurse’s aide again applied her hovering, not-quite touch to the young woman’s arm. She rose from the chair.

Standing on her own, the young woman turned her pale face toward the brown face of the nurse’s aide. For a brief moment, something unspoken passed between them. Then the nurse’s aide grabbed the younger woman in a bear hug of sorts, finally allowing herself to fully take control of the other’s body.

“You listen to them people, you hear? You take the help they give you,” she said in a tone she might use with her own children.  “I don’t wanna see you back here, understand? I’ll be disappointed in you if I do.” She released the young woman. “I’ll keep you in my prayers.”

The young woman nodded, turned to the car and slowly, with exaggerated movements, crawled onto the back seat. I closed the door. The nurse’s aide looked at me. At the same time, we both said, “Thanks.”

The young woman was not different from many of the passengers I ferry from one refuge to the next: withdrawn, hurt, silent. Others are angry and manipulative. A few cannot sit still and chatter incessantly, so we talk. Some hold conversations with people who are not there, or see things I cannot. Most are wrapped in a heavy, invisible shroud of sadness.

Mental illness is lonely.

At the psychiatric hospital, a man in a white smock appeared with a wheelchair. I opened the rear passenger door. The young woman, her head bowed and covered, moved her legs tentatively.

The small sound came from beneath the hood again, and this time it swelled louder. I reached in and took her feet in my hands, first one then the other, and gently swung her legs out of the door. She put her feet on the asphalt of the parking lot, grabbed my hand, firmly, with a strength she’d not before shown, and pushed herself up out of the car.

The young woman moved to the wheelchair, as the cold winter wind buffeted her about like a faded, fragile flower. But she made it, and sat.

As the man in the white smock stepped behind the wheelchair, the young woman looked at me for the first time. In her face, pale and grimacing, I recognized the sadness and fear that had aged her far beyond her years.

“Good luck,” I said softly.

She mouthed two quiet words in return, whispers on the wind really.   

“Thank … you.”

Rick Wade is a freelance writer and Illinois Times contributor living in central Illinois who, the past couple years, transported psychiatric patients from emergency situations to behavioral health facilities for Illinois Patient Transport. He is returning to journalism full time as reporter/managing editor of the Macoupin County-Carlinville Enquirer-Democrat. 
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