Friday, September 25, 2015

Downey VA Hospital..... A Lost Empire

Decades ago VA Hospitals were divided in 2 camps, General Medicine and Surgery or GMS and
Neuropsychiatric or NP. Downey was an NP  faciltity  and the countries largest VA Hospital at 1800 beds. It was located about 35 miles north of Chicago adjacent to Great Lakes naval training center. It was constructed right after WWII and designed to provide a lifetime of care via institutionalization for people with chronic mental illness. There was even a full scale medical hospital with ORs and critical care units with strange names (critical care units were called GPUs or General Purpose Units)  The OR was always called EOR or emergency OR. God forbid anyone should mistake them for a "real" medical surgical hospital. That is the only rationale I could deduce for the funny names.

It was really a self contained city with it's own zip code, 60064. There was a movie theater, bowling alley, golf course, swimming pool, and various work areas for the patients such as the spoon factory where patients spent the day tossing plastic spoons into plastic bags. There was a greenhouse where the most common activity seemed to be digging compost and also a metal and wood shop. All the buildings were connected by underground tunnels which always reminded me of catacombs, with poor lighting and spooky dead ends. Staff moved from building to building topside whenever possible.

Patients were housed in multiple 2 story brick buildings with 2 wards on the first floor and 2 on the second with  total census of 104 patients n each building. Windows were covered with vertical iron bars. There were no elevators and the stairwells had imposing walls of cyclone fencing through the middle core to prevent patients from jumping. Radiators provided heat and there was no air conditioning. The buildings were like brick ovens in the summer. Open windows had no screens and various birds and flying insects entered the buildings. Electricity was delivered by underground lines which were not very reliable. Building 66 where I worked was once without power for 3 days. We used flashlights and battery operated lanterns as a backup. The patients barely noticed, but there was definitely a Halloween atmosphere with bizarre shadows and spookiness throughout. The souls of over 100 schizophrenics all in one poorly lit area.  Yikes, get me out of here!

Almost every patient had the same diagnosis (SCU) or schizophrenia, chronic undifferentiated. About 2% of the population was bipolar and added some spice to the mix. All patients smoked constantly while in the dayroom producing a dense ever present haze. Smoke Eater machines mounted on the ceiling did little to clear the air. A typical ward included the day room with connecting hallway to the dorm which was just a huge open room with beds. Just off the hallway was a restraint room with four heavy beds bolted to the floor. The beds were usually all occupied. My claim to fame at Downey was teaching a couple of very violent patients a self restraint technique. I got them to the point when they felt like slugging someone to come to me and ask to be put in restraints. I readily complied with their request and let them decide when they should be released. It worked like a charm for a couple of patients and I always thought I should have received some kind of performance bonus for my idea. The VA was always handing out bone head awards of one type or another, but I got passed over.

In the mid 1970's things began to change at Downey. When liberals and conservatives have common objectives, things happen in a hurry. I really hate political labels and politics in general, but the liberals thought chronic psych patients needed to be freed from the chains of custodial care and some thinkers like R. D. Laing even questioned the whole concept of mental illness. According to R.D. "Insanity was a rational adjustment to an insane world." The conservatives did not like to spend tons of tax dollars on what seemed like a lost cause. Downey began to change. Long term patients were discharged with terrible end results. Patients wreaked havoc in the community by strolling into restaurants and failing to pay. Camping in city parks and the homelessness we still witness today.

The "Downey" name was first changed to "North Chicago VA" then "Great Lakes VA."  The Chicago Medical School built a huge campus smack dab in the middle of the golf course. Today Downey is gone for good replaced by the James Lovell Federal Health Center. Real medical stuff without EORs or GPUs.  I tried Googling Downey and nothing even came up. I guess some things really are best forgotten.

26 comments:

  1. My aunt worked at Downey in the 1950's. She was a Korean "conflict" Navy nurse and when her husband (who remained in the Navy) was posted as an engineering instructor at Great Lakes, my aunt went to work at Downey. My mom was a psych nurse at the VA in Milwaukee, WI (Wood) and the two would talk about work and their hospitals when we went to visit them at Great Lakes or they came to see us in Milwaukee. I was pretty young and didn't understand much of what they were talking about but your post filled in some of the gaps. Thank you.

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  2. Kevin, I was wrong about the number of beds at Downey. The correct total was 2400 beds. This place was really huge. It really boggles my mind how such a physically big place can disappear by morphing into something else. The only other facility that even resembled Downey VA was the Tomah VA in rural Wisconsin. It was built in the same era as Downey, but on a much smaller scale. I still have program notes form a Token Economy treatment modality at Downey and was thinking of doing a future post about it. I appreciate hearing from you as I thought no one would even know what Downey was. I am certain all of the fine people I worked with at Downey have gone on to their great reward. I was 22 years old when I started working there and most everyone else much older.

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  3. I knew Downey was a big hospital but didn't know it was that big. The whole VA system began to change in the mid-1970's and I'm sure Downey's morph into something else was a result of the politics of that time.

    My parents both worked at the VA in Tomah after they got married in 1948 (both were WW 2 vets-mom in Army Nurse Corps in India and dad in Army Ambulance Corps in Persia and Europe). Sometime before I arrived in 1950 they moved to the VA in Marion, IN, and I was born when they worked there. After I arrived they wanted to be closer to their parents and moved to the VA in Milwaukee (Wood). Both of my parents and Aunt Betty have gone on to their "great reward" but I still remember their conversations about work and hospitals.

    I really enjoy your posts about nursing "in the old days". I started nursing school in 1975 but was offered a job in television and never finished clinical. I tried again a few years ago at the local tech college but once again life's events got in the way. I do volunteer as an EMT with the city's EMS service and that's always interesting. Thanks again for the blog posts.

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  4. I am amazed that I found this blog. I was just going through boxes and boxes of old family memorabilia trying to find out anything I could about a great uncle who I understand lived in a VA hospital around Chicago. I found one handwritten note from him to his sister who was my great aunt. It was not dated but is very old. From other family papers it looks like he joined the army at the beginning of or during WWII for about 2 years and then discharged due to stress. The names of "Downey VA" and "Hines VA" as an alternative were mentioned in this note. The reason I am so interested in him is because his brother (my grandfather) and sister (my great aunt) NEVER told us he even existed until after his death in 1975. They were all brought up in the days (early 1900's) that it was shameful during their time to admit to having anyone with mental illness in the family. Yet they sent him all the news of their children (my mom and her brother) and his great neices and nephews ( my sister, my cousins, and me). So, so sad and maddening that he was kept hidden from his own family! I am wondering if there would be any old records that would still exist that would give me any clues about him and his illness. I feel a wish to give him the acknowledgment he deserves, despite the fact he is no longer alive.

    I am wondering who started this blog and what your connection is? I hope to see a response soon as I am trying so hard to find information. Any info or help of direction you could offer would be so appreciated!

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    1. Hello again - I just found your profile below so now I know the origin of your blog! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts about my post😊

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  5. In the early 1950s I was a young child, and still today vividly recall visiting locked wards at Downey. Those visits continued until our relative began going to Hines, probably in the late 1960s or 70s. My memory differs in that I recall an elevator in at least one of the buildings. I remember because the adult I was with didn't want to use it one particular day fearing it would "stop and get stuck," trapping us with unpredictable patients. I insisted, and yes, we did get stuck. Thankfully, not for long and the experience was without incident. Still, I do have some graphic memories of patients, wrapped in iced-wet sheets, prone on gurneys, lining the hallway, moaning and screaming. And, yes, the visiting rooms and hallways were thick with smoke, often churned by the pacing of patients.

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  6. To Anonymous- I have checked this blog off and on since I posted in 2015 and have been disappointed not to see any further entries. I was pleasantly surprised to see yours of June 2018 - I was born in 1954 so It sounds like we are fairly close in age - I am pretty sure your relative may have been there the same time as my great uncle. He lived there until he passed in in the early to mid 1970’s. I don’t have any detailed information about him except his name and he was there because he “couldn’t cope”. We never found out what his specific diagnosis was. I just googled “Hines” and found their website. I’m thinking of contacting them to see if they have any old records. I’m not optimistic but it doesn’t hurst to try. How long did your relative live there?

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  7. My Father was @ Downey for 12 years on a court order, he died there in 1980.Everything said on this blog is true, he was a paranoid schizo and was warehoused in bldg: 51 which still stands today empty. I saw it recently with its outside porch enclosed with iron rails, he always said it was like being in jail with its locked wards. He was a pacer and smoked like a chimney, I visted him often with Grandma and only one time did a socialworker get him a trainpass to come home in all that time. I recall there were some suicides, Amen.


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  8. So sorry to hear about your Father. Downey was a sad place but I think in some ways it was an improvement over the way mentally ill folks are treated today. I think it speaks for itself that the largest provider of care for the mentally ill today is the prison system. Downey was a cruel place at times but many of the staff did their best they could to help the patients.


    My "thing" was to get patients outside and off the smoke filled wards when the weather was good. I organized a softball tournament-the ballfield was directly behind building 66.


    It was kind of you to visit your Dad. Downey was not very visitor friendly and most patients, sadly, had few or no visitors. I'm sure your visits meant the world to him.

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  9. Thank you so much for writing this! It has helped me so much in my current research. What years did you work there? I'm wondering if you could help me. My Father used to live at Downey - his father was a psychiatrist that worked there in the 1950s. I'm actually about to embark on a Pilgrimage to many places he used to live that he told me stories about before he died in 2016. One of them was about his time in Chicago at the VA and the friends he met there and attempted to travel to California with. Here's a post I just wrote an hour ago on Facebook asking for help finding someone who used to work there. Perhaps you can help?

    Hello my friends who live in Chicago (or have connections in Chicago)! I am in need of your help & suggestions. I will be traveling to Chicago & Waukegan, IL as part of my pilgrimage - following my father’s stories - and I need your help finding someone.

    One of the big stories Dad told me was about how he & two of his African-American friends who worked/lived at Downey Veteran's Hospital(there were barracks some employees lived in), set out from Waukegan to drive across country to seek their fortunes in California. This was in 1956. My dad was 17 and had just been kicked out of the house (he & his father did not get along). When he told me this story he could no longer remember the name of one of his companions but remembered the older of the two went by the nickname “Chicken.” It’s unclear whether my dad ever knew what this gentleman’s given name was. Anyway, I know it’s a long shot, but I have this dream of finding Chicken or his descendants/family members/friends. According to the story, Chicken was having marital troubles at the time & left his wife to go on this adventure. It was Chicken’s car that they drove until it broke down in Watertown, SD. The inhabitants at that time had never seen an African-American in person and apparently the guys were getting hit on left and right by all these white women - which terrified them as fraternizing with white women often equaled lynching or some form of loss of life or limb. They could not find jobs that paid enough to both keep them alive & fix the car. So, one by one, they found a way to leave. The younger man joined the armed forces. Chicken eventually called his wife & she got him a bus ticket home. My dad stayed until winter but eventually caved and asked his mom for help. She scrimped & saved and bought him a bus ticket home.

    I feel like this story is memorable on multiple levels and might have been something Chicken spoke about to his friends and/or loved ones as well. I would love it if I could find him or someone who remembers him telling his version of the story. I was wondering if you’d be willing to share this post with your networks in Chicago/Waukegan to see if we can find Chicken or his family? Also, if you have suggestions of publications - paper or digital -to post in, or communities to reach out to with this I’d greatly appreciate it.

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    1. I was working at Downey quite a bit later (1974-1976.) Downey did offer housing for employees on station. The physicians actually lived in fairly nice single family homes with other employees housed in "quarters." These accommodations involved tidy single rooms with a shared bathroom. Folks that had recently left military service often commented that living and working at Downey was the exact same experience as being on activity in the military. Best of luck in learning more about your family.

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  10. Grandfather was a retriever for Downey, retired 1969, Grandmother was one of the head psyche nurses, retired 1972 both had started there in early 50's

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  11. I am working on my family’s genealogy. One of our ancestors served in WWI. His draft registration records that he has “bad blood.” I’m aware that this may be interpreted as syphilis or, perhaps, as mental illness. In spite of this, he served in the Navy from 1918 to 1919. I can’t find him in the 1920 Census, but in 1930 he is listed as a “patient” at “US Veterans’ Hospital 105” in Shield’s Township, Lake County, Illinois.” “Reservation” is handwritten near the hospital’s name. He lives in Dwelling 12 with Family 22. He has no occupation. His Code is 65. In the 1940 Census he is again housed in the US Veterans’ Hospital in Shield’s Township, Lake County, Illinois. Also noted is that this is an “Unincorporated Place: Downey, Illinois.” In 1940, “hospital” is crossed out and “Administration Facility” is written near the hospital’s name. He is now described as an “inmate.” In the column which refers to being employed for pay, is the abbreviation “Inst,” which I assume means “institutionalized.” In the column labelled “occupation,” he and one other resident have the word “duplicated.” I assume this means that their information is recorded elsewhere—although Ancestry does not have another record. That column is blank for the other residents. This young man was one of 15 children of a German immigrant laborer. His father raped his older sister repeatedly and “drank” the family’s grocery money. In spite of this, the children who survived to adulthood worked and married and had children of their own. Some remained in the greater Chicago area and others moved to Minnesota. The family with which I was acquainted was loving and happy. I have a newspaper article which recounts this young man accompanying his brother to Minnesota for a family reunion in 1937. He tugs at my heartstrings. So, is Downey Veteran Administration Hospital the same as Veterans’ Hospital 105? Can you shed any light on hospital 105 and on his time there? On whether his disability was the result of syphilis or of his experiences in WWI? He died in 1972 and is buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Libertyville. I’m grateful for any insight you can give. Thank You.

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    1. The VA has an affinity for assigning three digit codes to just about everything. Each service has a code and nursing was 118. I would be almost certain that "Veterans Hospital 105" referred to Downey in the time frame you mention.

      The older buildings at Downey were constructed in the early 1930s and pre date the VA. The agency was known as the Veteran's Bureau. Downey VA was named after the farmer who worked the land before selling to the government.

      WWI veterans were labeled as having bad blood for any number of reasons. Blood born illnesses like Malaria and hepatitis were quite common. I don't think the term referred directly to mental illness.

      I don't recognize the reference to "dwelling 12," but I was told that when the post WWII building boom occurred a number of "cottage" like residences were demolished.

      I worked at Downey from 1974-1976 so I am not all that familiar with the very early years, but it's reasonable to conclude your family member lived there based on your information. The VA did contract with private cemeteries so maybe that's why your family member is in Lakeside. The name of the cemetery refers to the fact that it is overlooking Butler Lake in Libertyville. It's a picturesque small cemetery.

      I wish I could be of more help to you and best of luck in your endeavors to learn about your ancestors.

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  12. I've been hoping to find something on the life my grandfather Peter Moran lived after WWI . This is quite a revealing blog. He was there approx 1924 until his death in 1964. I am happy to know my grandmother, her daughters, and some friends did visit him on most weekends. I visited once or twice. The pictures I have of him show him dressed well in a suit. I've never heard gruesome stories as these but perhaps things got worse after the 50's or we just never knew what was going on. I'm happy so happy to have found this blog

    His diagnoses as I know it was "shell shock". The horrible events of the war were just too much for many people to handle. Peter was a gentle soul. God bless him and all those who died or continue to suffer for our country and for the sake of freedom.

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    1. I am sorry to hear of the suffering experienced by your grandfather. He was there long before my employment. Downey did have nice domiciliary housing for veterans who were more independent and capable of self-care. Perhaps Peter was in this type of housing.

      For the less acute veterans, Downey had a 9 hole golf course, bowling alley, swimming pool, dance hall, and even a movie theater. Even though Downey had a few rough edges, but most of the staff was committed to providing good care and really tried to help the vets. I think how people with chronic mental illness were treated decades ago was better than the current situation where jails are the default provider of psychiatric care.

      All the best to you.

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  13. Wow. I googled Downey Veterans Hospital and this popped up. So interesting! My mom was in the Cadet Nursing Corps, graduating in 1947, and she worked at Downey back in the day. She told stories about some of the patients, and we knew that foul language didn't shock her. She just didn't like it; she'd heard so much of it then and associated it with mental illness. (My dad associated swearing with the Navy, also not the best time of his life.) Her training at St. Luke's had been accelerated and tough. I think she was a good nurse, but she didn't stick with it long. She and Dad moved to the DC area and she quit active nursing when her first child was born in 1951. She went back to it briefly later on but then changed careers and became a medical editor. She volunteered once a week at a mobile clinic for the poor, though, and took blood pressures at the senior center. Her nursing background stood her in good stead in publishing, though. When people were running around with their hair on fire because they might miss a deadline, her attitude was "Is someone going to die because of this screw up? No? Okay. Settle down." I'm working on her obituary now, and this blog is a nice distraction. Good stuff.

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    1. Your mom was a very special person and was wise to find other career options outside of nursing. I spent way too many decades standing at my Mayo stand in the OR and have the arthritic knees and varicose veins to prove it. I started nursing school when I was just 18 and somehow never had the notion that I could do anything other than bedside care,

      Lobotomies were in their heyday when your mom worked at Downey. Walter Freeman, the inventor of the procedure visited Downey several times to ply his trade. Believe it or not he actually received the Nobel Prize for his work while Freud went without this recognition.

      I worked at Downey 1974-76 and some of the lobotomy patients were still there in body, but not in spirit.

      St. Luke's was in the heart of the medical center area in Chicago and I think later merged with Rush and Presby. The other two famous or infamous (depending on if you were a student) nursing programs were Cook County and Illinois Masonic on the North side.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment and I'm so sorry for your loss.

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  14. I lived on the hospital grounds from 1960 thro 1964. My father was a supply officer. We lived across from Halsey Village. Wish there were pictures of the hospital then. We were our own little village with our friends being transferred to other hospitals on a regular basis. Lots of memories.

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    1. Wow, that is so interesting as our family consisting of my Mom, dad and us very young kids ages 1 to 7 lived at the Great Lakes Naval Center in this barracks-type building. My dad, William R. Watson II worked at the Downey Hospital there for a spell in the early 60's as a psychiatrist, not sure how long, maybe several years. My dad had a serious car accident in the area and, sad to say, he had a drinking problem and passed away due to suicide in 1969 in Colorado. I remember being bused to school, cold snows and ice; listening to very early Beatles on my Mom's car radio at a Piggly Wiggly store; being in Kindergarten with many African-American kids one of whom taught me how to play drums on a desk! Thanks Old Fool Rn for this blog as it brought back memories. I love your wit and knowledge. I try to exemplify these tendencies in my life too!

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    2. I'm so sorry about your dad's passing. He worked there before my time. Your mention of Piggly Wiggly grocery stores brought back lots of wonderful memories. My dad did commercial refrigeration installation and maintenance for the Piggly Wiggly stores in northern Illinois. I worked as a produce boy at the Mundelein IL store. I made $1.60 an hour and felt like a rich person.

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  15. The 1960s were hey days for Downey. I worked with lots of older nurses from this era. Insulin shock therapy was in vogue during this time frame. A crude, dangerous, and ineffective treatment for mental illness.

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  16. Hello Oldfoolrn, I'm so glad that I came across your blog. I'd been trying for quite awhile to find information about the Downey VA but never did until just now. Looks like we were there at the same time. I was there in 1974 for 9 months doing a Music Therapy Internship which was tied in w/ the Recreational Therapy Unit = both part of the SRS Social Rehabilitative Services (I recall the names of several staff... and wonder if you knew them... not sure if it's ok to post here... so I wont).... How I remember the locked wards, the smoke, the very heavily medicated patients, ... it was quite an experience working and living there. I lived on the hospital grounds -in the nurses quarters, no car, and didnt know anyone... definitely a time in my life like no other...:) . I was from Kansas City, attended the University of Missouri - Kansas City Conservatory of Music.... was in the first graduating class of Music Therapists... which meant I couldnt find any place in K.C. to do my internship as none had yet been established.... In searching around, I found out about the Music Therapy unit at Downey VA.=that's how I landed there. Thank you Old Fool RN for this blog... It's nice to read your postings and the comments from others... nice to feel a part of a piece of history that had seemed to of not existed until this remembrance. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks for leaving your comment. I should have replied sooner, but sometimes I overlook old posts. I worked mainly evenings and nights in Building 66 at Downey and don't remember working with music therapists. Our psychiatrists were Dr. Elihu Howland and Helen Carlson. I also knew Drs Greenberg and Goldberg our psychologists. Dan Switchkow was our social worker.

      I heard mixed reviews from nurses who lived on Downey grounds in the quarters. Almost everyone who served in the military said that the vibe living in quarters made them feel like they never left the service. I guess that could be good or bad depending on your experiences.

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  17. Thank you for your vivid description of Downey. My mom's uncle, a veteran of WWI, returned from France in 1920 but lived a good part of the rest of his life at Downey. She remembers visiting him there and he was, as she remembers it, catatonic as he walked up and down the hallway as if on post. I think they called it "shell-shocked" back then. Now perhaps PTSD? He died in 1954. It makes me sad to think he went off to fight the "war to end all wars" and never really came back. I wonder if there are records extant of his time there?

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