Downey VA Hospital dayrooms had a dismal aspect about them with bars on the windows and the walls reflecting a gloomy potatoe-y noncolor with brown gravy like nicotine stains in just about every nook and cranny. Worst of all was the unbearable effluvium of cigarette smoke combined with the scent of men densely packed into a confined area. A palette rinse and sinus lavage was mandatory at the conclusion of a shift. The place just plain stunk.
The lighting cast a yellowish pall over the entire unsavory mess reminding me of a Foley bag long overdue to be emptied. Smokeeters were an acknowledgement of the foul conditions and an inadequate intervention to remedy the situation, a microcosm of the mental health treatment system.
Serious mental illness does strange things to folks. Emotional channels become intricately wound together so they coagulate and strangle each other. Recreational chemicals like nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine are some how involved in the masking of the pain induced by nervous dysfunction. One of the mantras often heard on the ward was, "nicotine cuts thorazine." Patients truly believed in the therapeutic effects of smoking and would go to great lengths to ingest as much nicotine as possible.
Smokeeters worked by electrostatic precipitation and the nicotine that adhered to the electrodes in the device required daily flushing. In an addition to an electrical connection, Smokeeters required plumbing to provide a water supply for routine cleaning. This maintenance operation called for twisting open the supply valve and making sure the drainage line to a utility sink in the laundry room was patent for the final journey to the sanitary sewer system.. A kink in the drain resulted a most unpleasant blowback of the toxic brackish nicotine concentrated effluent.
Curiously, there was always a contingent of anxious, over eager patients volunteering to flush the Smokeeter. I soon discovered their strange motivation one evening while making ward rounds. I was perplexed to see a patient whose entire upper torso was contorted into the depths of the utility sink where the foul liquid from the Smokeeter drained.
As I eased his head from the sink a syrupy brown exudate covered his lips. He had been guzzling the foul drainage from the Smokeeter. "What in the world are you doing?" I asked. With an ear to ear grin framed in the brown nicotine laden sludge he replied, "I'm drinking nectar from the nicotine gods courtesy of the Smokeeter.Try a swig-it's like smoking a whole carton of cigarettes in one drag. WOW..what a rush." I declined and made certain the laundry room was secure prior to flushing the Smokeeter.