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Walter and May: A Love Story (Part 3)

July 25, 2009

We spent two months getting to know Walter and the seven other people from his ward who were slated to come to Spectrum.  We got to observe the daily routine on the ward, including several mealtimes.  Three times a day, all 40 residents would be led downstairs to the dining hall, where they were presented with trays of food and a spoon (no forks or knives).  There was a half hour allotted to each meal – 10 minutes for everyone to get into the dining hall and be seated, 10 minutes to eat, and 10 minutes to leave the dining hall and return to the day rooms upstairs.  An eerie silence descended over the dining hall as forty people shoveled food into their mouths, eager to finish before the trays were whisked away or some unsuspecting hand from across the table snatched a handful off their plate.

All of the windows on the ward were made of plexiglass, the original glass panes having been shattered by Walter over the years – quite a feat, given that the windows were all behind bars.  Walter had a knack for hitting windows with a quick thrust of his wrist in such a way as to shatter them with a single blow.  But his most notorious behavior was pinching the ears of staff (rarely other residents) with a vice grip that had to be pried off with both hands.

Walter was heavily medicated to control the outbursts that would only worsen during his time at Woodlands.  Years before we met him, he had had all of his teeth removed, purportedly to prevent him from biting people.  Walter’s behavior frequently landed him in the “side room,” a small locked room with a bare mattress on the floor.  When he was outside in the fenced yard next to the ward, staff would tie his precious items to the fencepost to keep him contained – he would stand and stare longingly at his treasures, which were always just a little out of his reach.

I could go on, but you get the picture.  Of all the people on his ward, Walter was considered the most difficult, and the least likely to be successful in the community.  The planning for his transition to the community was done entirely by the doctors and administrators at Woodlands – like the majority of people on his ward, Walter had no family or outside advocate to speak for him.  One of the guiding principles in the downsizing projects was to return people to their home communities if at all possible, and so Walter was returned to Vancouver, even though he had long since lost contact with his family.  His mother was contacted about the move, but after all those years she said it would be too painful to see her son again: her preference would have been for him to move to another community.   

I don’t think any of us can appreciate what it must have been like for these families, to have placed their trust in a system that separated them from their loved ones, to be told by the professionals to go home and forget about their son or daughter, and then years later to be told by a new generation of professionals that it was all a big mistake. 

To be continued…

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