There is a piece in the City Journal this quarter about the New York state experience with psychotic citizens and the prison system. Years ago, I wrote a book about my experiences in medical school and still have some thoughts of publishing it as an e-baook. Chapter One included my own experience working in a psychiatric hospital before the changes took place that put the mentally ill on the streets.
In June of 1962 I was released from active duty. A place in the 1962 first year medical school class had been held for me, but I needed a job for the summer until classes resumed in September. I came across an ad in a Los Angeles paper for medical students to work at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in West Los Angeles. I was a medical student, albeit one with only a month of medical school under my belt, and I responded to the ad. I got the job, which consisted of performing annual physical examinations on patients in the closed psychiatric ward of the VA Hospital in West Los Angeles. My first experience with patients then was with chronic schizophrenics in a VA hospital.
As I entered upon my new duties at the VA hospital I had more experience than one would expect of a one-month medical student because I had been a corpsman for three years (only one on active duty). Nonetheless, performing annual physicals on 200 psychotic adult men was a daunting task. The psychiatry attending staff and residents decided that they would not do these required physicals because they thought physical contact would interfere with their relationship with the patients. These were the days of Psychoanalysis in psychiatry and examining or even touching patients was considered harmful. They chose medical students to do the task, and I was hired along with a few others. I reported to Building 206 on the Sawtelle Veteran’s Administration Hospital campus about the 15th of June to start my job. Building 206 housed 200 patients, all but a few of whom were chronic schizophrenics. There was one elderly black gentleman who suffered from tertiary syphilis (also called “General Paresis of the Insane” in the old days) contracted during the First World War. He had been a Veteran’s Administration Hospital patient since about 1928. The remainder was from World War II and Korea. The second floor of the building was a locked ward where patients were not allowed out on the grounds without being accompanied by a staff member. There was even a locked room on that floor where patients were confined in strait jackets if they were too agitated to be free on the locked ward. The first floor patients were in an “open ward” where they were allowed to go to the canteen and to go about the grounds of the hospital but were not allowed off the hospital grounds without a pass. If someone left without a pass he had “eloped.” There was one building on the hospital campus with a higher level of security than Building 206, but these patients of mine were chronically psychotic and not allowed to wander about freely except when they were on pass. It was an interesting experience for a first year medical student.
The VA Psych hospital was called The Sawtelle Veterans Home at one time.
The VA Psych hospital was north of Wilshire and evidence of the psych hospital is not easy to find.