(A snippet of Downey V.A. Hospital folklore)
I worked as a nurse at Downey V.A. Hospital for several months before I was aware there were women veterans confined amidst the 1600+ men. One evening I received a frantic phone call from a nurse in Building 135 asking if I could come to their ward and start an IV on a patient who was seizing. My recent medical background was an anomaly among Downey nurses. Most nurses employed there had worked on the back wards for decades, allowing their med-surg skills to atrophy. Eager to be accepted in this strange new land, I let it be known if there was an emergent medical problem, I was available to do what I could.
I furiously jammed my bit key into the worn slot on the heavy solid steel door on ward 3A, Building 135 and the portal opened briefly and ominously clicked shut. I was shocked to see an emaciated young lady seizing away on the dayroom floor. I should have suspected that any women patients at Downey VA were sequestered in gender segregated silos. At the time, womens' roles in the military were restricted by gender. It was a male dominated world with tentacles that extended to the V.A. psych wards.
I learned there were two locked female wards at Downey in Building 135 and they were the only ones available in the entire health system. Everyone here was seriously mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others. This arrangement concentrated the most acute patients in one facility while separating them from family and community resources.
The wards at Downey VA were touted for their therapeutic milieu, but it's a real strain to deduce what could be gained by such profound isolation. There was an on-ward dining room where meals were served to avoid comingling with the young bucks in the communal chow hall. Washers and dryers were also available to reinforce that matronly obligation of wash day duties. The place was a tour de force of isolation and womanly perspicacity.
Surfacing from my IV start and a hastily administered bolus of Valium, it was readily apparent that the wards in building 135 were much newer than my native Building 66 which was constructed in the 1920s. These contemporary quarters were straight out of the aseptic construction of medical surgical units. The gleaming terrazo floors and ceramic tile walls were more appropriate to an operating room than a place of comfortable lodging and recovery.
I had the notion that psychiatric units ought to be constructed in the architecture of theaters; not operating rooms. There was no shortage of high drama at Downey V.A. In lieu of a stage, the television assumed the focal point with the viewers numbly looking on like a brace of zombies. The TV came on at seven AM and droned on until bedtime.
I heard rumors that pregnant women gave birth on the unit and indeed there was an exam room eqipped with a table that sprouted stirrups from it's distal end. Hopefully mothers were carefully screened to delineate complicated deliveries, but you can never assume when it comes to VA care. The facility was loathe to having patients treated in community hospitals and had medical surgical units on site so the men did not have to venture off base for care. Pregnant patients flayed by desperate life circumstances giving birth on a psychiatric unit made me wonder what chance the infant had for a normal life.
As I eyeballed and wondered what a lone mattress was doing on the dayroom floor, an attendant enlightened me. "We do takedowns differently here. I know you guys over in Building 66 like to countdown and have everyone grab an extremity to apply full leather restraints, but here we just force the unruly patient into a corner using the mattress as a shield and hold them there until they calm down. Visions of a mattress held vertically and used to pin down a patient reminded me of the Chicago Police in their riot gear and shields at the 1968 Democratic Convention riots.
Walking back to the hallowed halls of building 66 I thought of a cat driven high in a tree by a pack of dogs. Safe at last, but completely isolated like the women in Building 135. Maybe it's time to call the fire department.