In the early hours of September 19 – about 3 AM, someone estimated – Gloria X. was awoken from her sleep at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, the New Jersey State hospital. Her new (about 3 weeks) roommate, Florence, whom she had trusted, was on top of her punching her in the eyes. Florence pounded her eyes over and over and over – taking out 50 years of rage on Gloria.
Why Gloria? No one knows. Or those who know ain’t talking. Was it because Gloria was white (most of the residents were people of color) or small or timid or because Gloria disturbed Florence with her complaints about her eyes? Gloria had diabetes and ironically was afraid of going blind. Gloria says she was afraid to scream because Florence told her she’d kill her if she did. Gloria, was probably paralyzed with fear – and also by heavy doses of anti-psychotics and other drugs.
But if Gloria did scream out of pain – which she very well might have done, involuntarily if not deliberately – no one heard her. No one was listening. For 3 hours no one came in to look. This was a breach of contract. Someone who worked in a dangerous place like Trenton Psychiatric told me that patients there were supposed to be checked every half hour. But Gloria’s social worker leaked to Jeff Levy, Gloria’s boyfriend of 17 years, that no one looked in until the morning. “It was the hospital’s fault,” she admitted furtively.
Certainly the agreement to “treat” her – an agreement decided for Gloria by the psychiatrist and the judge “en parens patriae” – to make her “better,” included the implicit assurance that the hospital would protect her from harm. On the day of the assault a psychiatrist who picked up the phone spontaneously confessed to Jeff on the phone. “Gloria doesn’t mind anyone’s else business, but they minded hers. She did not deserve this to happen to her. This never should have happened.”
Gloria had no idea when she was admitted into Trenton Psychiatric Hospital that she was entering the twilight zone — a place where anything could happen. In 2010 alone, Trenton Psychiatric had 26 patient-on-patient incidents with major injuries, while the other four state hospitals in New Jersey had a combined total of eight.
It wasn’t her decision to go there. Her psychiatric group home sent her there because she had developed a phobia about taking showers. Why did this require being sent to a state psychiatric hospital instead of out-patient treatment? Gloria was told she would be given “intensive treatment” for her problems. Yet she should have been warned of the dangers – she was fragile, passive, and vulnerable.
I know from reading and experience that people like this assailant almost always have prior histories of violence. These patients become repeat offenders because “mental patients” have neither rights nor responsibilities – as Thomas Szasz said – and thus violent patients do not learn that they are responsible for their actions and will be held accountable for their crimes. The system unwittingly – but willfully – encourages repeated criminal offenses.
I knew about Gloria’s situation from Jeff, who has been calling me for counseling or emotional support off and on for 25 years (pro bono). He’s been on disability since he was 26. He’s a misfit, he says, and proud of it. But unlike Gloria he has always refused to take the drugs – the “medications” – and he always hated the mental health system. He saw what the drugs did to patients. I told him that many studies showed that the “anti-psychotics” such as clozapine and olanzapine were “major risk factors for diabetes mellitus.” Gloria was on clozapine, which probably caused her diabetes — yet no effort was made by Gloria’s psychiatrists to wean her off this drug, or at least put her on a substitute.
In the 17 years since I first met Gloria she has never hurt, threatened or deliberately provoked anyone. But, according to Jeff, Gloria had been complaining that her eyes bothered her. Was her assailant a violent person who was set off by Gloria’s complaints? Who knows what would prompt her to commit such an unimaginably heinous act?
The lion’s share of accountability in Gloria’s case lies with the hospital which has assumed the task of “caring” for patients. If not for Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, Gloria never would have been brought into contact with this walking time bomb. In Gloria’s case it was against her will that she was at Trenton – she never asked to be sent there. She wanted to return to her group residence. It was the judge who – upon the urging of the hospital psychiatrist – ruled that Gloria was “too sick” to return to her group residence and needed to stay in Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.
“Why?” I asked her social worker. Because Gloria was too sick, she said, to care for herself; she had become incommunicative. That was absurd. Gloria lived in a group home. It’s true she was taciturn but when did verbosity become a requirement to avoid hospitalization? She went before a judge. He deferred to the hospital psychiatrist, and they got to keep Gloria for another 6 weeks – and to collect her Medicaid/Medicare insurance. I think the financial incentive was really why Gloria was kept in a state mental hospital.
Since I knew someone who tripped on a pothole in 1990 and slightly injured her foot and successfully sued NYC for $100,000 I thought getting Gloria a few million dollars would not be that difficult, once I found an intelligent lawyer who wanted to make money. No amount of monetary compensation can make up for the loss of Gloria’s vision, of course. But at least the money – if Gloria as an SSD – SSI recipient could keep it in some kind of account, or if it was enough to provide an income – would allow Gloria to find a better group home (one for the blind), or live in an apartment with home service and to enable her to buy a service dog. In other words it would give Gloria access to the kind of amenities available to well-off blind persons. The State owes Gloria that much.
Ironically, the horrendous accident could then become a stepping stone to getting Gloria out of the mental health system, although she is still addicted to psychiatric drugs. Further, Trenton Psychiatric Hospital took away Gloria’s vision and there should be criminal charges filed against individuals within that hospital for failing to ensure Gloria’s safety.
Gloria was, in effect kidnapped by the hospital and kept there for over 6 months – ostensibly because she was insufficiently communicative to cope with the real world – until she was assaulted due to the State’s negligence, or in other words due to Trenton Psychiatric Hospital’s “depraved indifference” (to use the legal term) to the life of a “mental patient.” Will no one be held accountable?
Two days after Gloria was assaulted, and two days after she was flown by helicopter to the Cooper Hospital trauma unit, she pulled the bandage off her left eye and felt around – and suddenly the realization hit her. Jeff called me on his cell phone so I could experience Gloria’s terror and pathos. He did not say anything; I heard a woman screaming and crying in terror in a high pitched voice, “My eye. Oh my God. My eyes. My eyes. My eye is gone. I want my eye back.” And later, “Mommy. Mommy. I want my Mommy!” Her mother had died in 2009.
Gloria was not “delusional” before the assault. They have driven her into a state – hopefully temporary – of “psychosis.” I got to hear Gloria crying in terror last week also — this time Jeff played what he recorded on his cell phone. “I’m blind! I’m blind! I’m blind!! I want my eyes back.” It broke my heart. So for the past 2 weeks I’ve been living Jeff’s nightmare with him. Not with Gloria – she is alone in a foreign universe of darkness. How can she “adjust” to something that never ought to have happened, that would never have happened if Gloria had not been removed from her psychiatric group home, and placed in Trenton State Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey?
The mental system she trusted failed her. The state failed her. Her brother, who hasn’t talked to her since her mother died in 2009, failed her. Although Gloria has always been sweet-tempered, her brother living in middle class suburbia did not want anything to do with a mental patient. When Gloria first got to Trenton she used to call: ”Jimmy! Jimmy!” (They were close as children.) But although he knew she had been blinded he never once called her. Only Jeff stood by her side.
At first I naively assumed that the blinding would make front page news in New Jersey. But I was soon disabused of that notion. It also became obvious to me that there would be no genuine criminal investigation. The state hospitals had their own police force whose purpose was to cover up for the hospital. I called the police to confirm that the incident was reported, and the officer assured me that a “thorough investigation” was being conducted. But no police officer has even bothered to interview Gloria about the assault to this day — three weeks after the assault.
What kind of “thorough investigator” does not interview the victim? Although I left dramatic accounts with a dozen New Jersey newspapers that a patient in their state hospital had been blinded – only James McEvoy of the Trenton Times showed any interest in doing a story. Was it because the life of a mental patient did not matter, or because New Jersey jouralists did not want to publicly air their state’s dirty laundry?
I called lawyer after lawyer. Most told me curtly the case was too difficult. In New Jersey, in a state mental hospital, several lawyers told me, it is not sufficient to prove the hospital was negligent. I spoke to one lawyer, Abbot Brown, who said that when he read my FB account – which I sent him – he gasped out loud. “This should not happen to anyone.” He has a social conscience. He spent a day thinking about it and then wrote me that he had instructed his partner, who specialized in personal injury law, to “begin the representation of Gloria and investigation.”
But the partner was more wary – the obstacles too great. Negligence does not mean liability in these cases, he said. “What?” I said; “The hospital has no liability?” “No, it’s not that there is no liability” he responded. “What constitutes liability then?” I asked. He responded that if they were “willfully negligent” they would be liable. Willfully negligent? The hospital has to have wanted Gloria to be assaulted? That is ludicrous. It did not happen because they wanted it. It happened because they did not care, because she belongs to that lesser breed of sub-human creatures: mental patients, “schizophrenics,” “bipolars.”
One lawyer bluntly told me that: He said that most juries would consider the quality of life Gloria would have living in a psychiatric institution for the rest of her life so low had she not been blinded that losing her eyesight would not make much of a difference! It just goes to show that mental patients are considered inferior beings. Gloria valued her sight as much as anyone, and although the halfway house she lived in left a lot to be desired — blame that also on the State of New Jersey — Gloria cherished her sight
What right does any person have to say Gloria’s eyesight is of less value than that of any “normal” human being? This is the kind of reasoning that justified the “euthanasia” of the “mentally ill” by German psychiatrists before the holocaust. Or of the Tuskegee experiment in which young black men were allowed by doctors to die from syphilis, instead of being cured with penicillin. (See). The rationale is their lives were of less value.
But New York patients’ rights lawyer Dennis Feld told me that despite the obstacles, these kind of cases can be successfully prosecuted – even in New Jersey. I told some friends who were activists. They said the lawyers were wrong, The lawyers just did not want to gamble on a difficult case. It was up to the lawyer to overcome the jury’s prejudices. But personal injury lawyers don’t like to go to Court. And they are in the business for money — Not because they have hearts or believe in social justice. So people like Gloria are out of luck. Too bad she did not fall into a pothole. For that there is a solution. But not for negligence leading to blindness — not for a mere mental patient.
Apparently the hospital is allowed to force a patient to stay there, involuntarily subjecting the patient to great risks, certainly greater than forgoing “treatment” – and the patient must bear total responsibility for those risks even though she had no choice and would have returned home rather than sign a waiver if she could — If she had been told that she was in a room with a person with a history of violence, and especially if she was told she risked being beat up, risked being blinded. The hospital should not have put a potentially violent patient in the room with Gloria – intentionally (willingly) or not. The hospital should have known.
Gloria’s left eye — smoldering with infection — was removed on Oct 8 to keep the infection from spreading to the brain. A question that Gloria’s boyfriend keeps asking is: Is there any hope that Gloria will recover partial vision in the right eye? Finally he was told by the ophthalmologists at Cooper Hospital. Two of them said the same thing: The chances were very low (one said 10%) that she would have some slight vision in her right eye — shadows, maybe. But what about another opinion? I said to one lawyer, “It is the hospital’s responsibility to see that Gloria receives the best treatment in order to salvage some vision.” He corrected me: “The hospital’s only legal responsibility is to see that Gloria sees a competent ophthalmologist. They are not legally obligated to do everything possible to salvage some sight.”
Gloria was kept in the state mental hospital for over 6 months. As there had been no improvement, why not let her go back to her group home? Gloria’s “presenting problem” had greatly improved. She was taking showers. Other than that I maintain that the longer she stayed the worse she got – she vegetated there. I wanted to contact the MHLS attorney on Gloria’s behalf to get her out sooner. (In NY I have often persuaded them to more aggressively represent their clients.) The Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that patients’ constitutional right to freedom be respected and that they be placed in the “least restrictive” environment necessary. The hospital violated Gloria’s right to freedom and prevented her from going back to her group home. Why? Because she was reticent! Cui bono? (Who benefits?) Not Gloria. Not the blind lady.
Trenton Psychiatric Hospital has not officially released her. So they send two workers to sit with her every day. That has its advantages. When Gloria wakes up it’s not just to silent blackness. She hears their voices. But what is their agenda? They told Jeff that after rehabilitation they want to take her back to another unit in Trenton – back in the State mental hospital. So, will Gloria be placed back in a state mental hospital again, the same place that destroyed her – soon to be forgotten?
Jeff wanted her near him, sighted or blind – in Brooklyn. Not a 6 hour round trip away. If they send her back to Trenton she’ll be inaccessible to Jeff. He’d only see her under watch of the guard for an hour or so. They won’t be able to go anywhere alone together. Blinded, she won’t see him at all. In a mental health facility, without Jeff’s daily attention, Gloria would likely lose her will to live. She would die of a broken heart — Like so many others destroyed by the “mental health” system. They already blinded her – are they determined to kill her too? She’s just another indigent mental patient.
They can never make up for what they owe her but they can put her in a safe residence near Jeff, where she is part of the Brooklyn community – not a state mental hospital or a sleazy residence for the blind “mentally ill.” They could buy her a seeing-eye dog. Gloria and Jeff could go on walks together. Those dogs do miracles, technically and psychologically. Jeff calls Gloria continuously now, and visits her once a week – all he can afford since it’s a 3-hour trip each way to Cooper Hospital.
Two imperfect people, Gloria and Jeff, found something to live for in each other. The loveless state hospital in Trenton has taken Gloria’s insurance money, they’ve taken her sight, they taken her health – and now they want to take away her right to love. Jeff knows she is his “better half,” and he’s knows how precarious her situation is, so he’s hanging on – he’s fighting for her love and life. Blind or sighted Jeff wants Gloria to be with him in the world. Every phone conversation Jeff tells Gloria he loves her and she repeats the sentiment back to him. The few conversations I’ve had with her before her accident but after her hospitalization ended with Gloria asking me to tell Jeff to call her. She told the representative from Disability Rights that she would like to live in a group home near Jeff in Brooklyn. When Jeff was not feeling well enough to visit Gloria in the hospital a few weeks ago she told him she was disappointed. Every now and then an ominous image arises in my mind: I can see Jeff at her funeral. A single figure, crying for Gloria and for all the dreams that are buried with her.He’d never get over it.
Don’t let the “mental health” system do that to Gloria. She is a simple good natured person who never harmed anyone.. Demand compensation. Demand Trenton release her. Demand she have the right to live with or near Jeff in Brooklyn. Demand she be given a seeing-eye dog. These are little things compared to the big things they’ve taken from her. But they are what make life worth living. This is what she wants. It’s the least she deserves, the least they owe her.
Help save Gloria
Call Jeff Levy at 718 338-3234
Seth Farber, Ph.D. [email protected]
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.