Thursday, October 26, 2017

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest comes to Roost at Downey VA Hospital

Cuckoo's Nest Nurse Ratched on the silver screen at Downey VA
Downey VA Hospital, the 1600 bed psychiatric warehouse hospital in North Chicago, Illinois had it's very own movie theater showing first run movies that had been carefully screened by an assortment of know-it-all, busy body administrators. Disney Movies, feel-good musicals  and an assortment of cartoons were the typical fodder. Someone must have been asleep at the switch in the movie review detail  because one afternoon the head nurse approached me with an agitated look about her. "Can you believe it..One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is being shown this afternoon at the theater on base." Hmm..I began thinking it might be an adventure to escort a group of our locked ward patients over to view this movie.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, based on a Ken Kesey novel, was a movie filmed on the back wards of an Oregon State  Hospital for the Insane.  It featured a down right despicable Nurse Ratched character that was domineering and abusive to her patients. She controlled everything on the ward from the TV to determining candidates for lobotomy. The scenes of the patients' on the ward was a spitting image of Building 66AB at Downey where I was working. Downey nurses, for the most part, were too burned out to dominate anyone. The modus operandi was just getting by until that Civil Service Retirement kicked in. There were no Nurse Ratcheds at Downey.

Downey had a rule that any closed ward group of  patients must be accompanied by an RN on outings. I made it my personal mission to get these guys off that smoke filled, depressing  ward as much as possible and organized walks, picnics, and even ball games. So when I heard about Cuckoos Nest  being shown on movie night, I figured, what the heck? These guys are just about living the movie and I was curious how they would respond. I strolled onto the ward after supper and called out, "Movie night, who wants to go?"

Two dozen or so of the patients stepped up and we walked over to the theater. Sometime movies elicited shouting and bouts of unrestrained laughter, but during Cuckoo's Nest there was a strange silence from the crowd. The experience of sitting in a long term psychiatric hospital watching a movie filmed in such a location reminded me of watching a war movie in the middle of an active battlefield. Today one of the most overused words that pops up in contemporary banter is surreal.

Watching Cuckoo's nest at Downey VA with a group of schizophrenics was way beyond surreal. It was one of the most unusual experiences I've had as a nurse except perhaps for the time a patient filled his prosthetic leg with urine and asked for help putting it on. When I placed his stump in the prosthesis urine splashed everywhere to the delight of the young amputee.

After the movie ended, about half of the patients had no reaction what so ever, because the long term use of drugs like Thorazine had wiped out any trace of individual personality. A chemical lobotomy of sorts. Another group of patients had trouble separating reality from the movie characters and asked me to speak with Nurse Ratched to "straighten her out."  The other small group identified with the characters and  was delighted that someone had made a movie about them.

On the commute home, I kept thinking that I'm going to write about  that Downey VA movie night experience down some day. I knew my lackluster writing skills would fail to communicate the bizarre nature of watching a movie imitating a mental hospital in a genuine metal hospital. At least I tried.


  1. Well done. A movie within a movie. You should write a script.

  2. Great to hear from both of you. Officer Cynical I imagine you could replicate the experience by watching "COPS" on a tablet in your squad car.

    Today it seems like there are a host of surreal experiences, but back in the early 1970's it was a novelty. The memory of watching Cuckoo's Nest at Downey with a contingent of folks experiencing schizophrenia really stuck with me.

  3. Wow! That really was a...surreal experience. I remember when the movie came out. I was just a college student, but it reminded me of some aspects of dormitory living. We had some strange students.

  4. I worked on a Psych Unit here in Australia for some years and I can verify Nurse Ratched was alive and real, we had our own personal one - a true psychopath she made my flesh crawl (and everyone else). Once we had a patient who was terrified of the colour black so what did our Nurse Ratched do but wear all black to work (we wore civvies then) - black dress, black stockings, black shoes - all to scare the patient. She creeped everyone out.

    Love your blog - I trained in Australia in the early 1970s. Feel a bit sad about how nurses look now - we had such smart uniforms and were so proud of them. Caps and veils too!

  5. Old school capes were the icing on the cake for nursing uniforms of yesteryear. The diploma school class that graduated a year before me was the last to have capes. They even had their senior graduation photos taken with the cape slung over half their white uniform.

    My mom kept her nursing cape and I incorporated it into various Halloween costumes (Superman and Count Dracula.) The cape was all wool and weighed a ton - I struggled with it as a child, but it was a classic garment.

    Nurse Ratched is a terrifying character and I'm lucky that I never ran into the likes of her.

    Thanks so much for indulging in my foolishness!