By Beryl Wajsman on September 2, 2009

I’ve often said that the word vacation doesn’t exist in my life. I feel privileged to be able to do advocacy and journalism . You get used to not having normal routines. Perhaps I never wanted them in the first place. So you live your life out there – on the edge -  available, attackable, accessible. And you get used to pretty much all sorts of tragic stories and appeals. But every now and then there  is one that not only ignites a fury that propels you to act, but also floods you with sadness that moves you to reflect.

elderly_hands_small_4k1i.jpgThis paper goes off regular schedule for about a week every July and I was going to use that time for some personal catch-up. But that was not to be. The calls came in a flood several weeks ago, just twenty-four hours after we had put several editions to bed. Messages at the office. Messages on my cell. Messages at home.

 The voice was tiny and tinny. But eloquent and formal. He always said my full name with a Mr. in advance. In calm measured tones the man simply asked that I call him at the hospital he was in to “save his life.” Some of the messages ended in  fragile sobs. But the author of those tears never lost his composure.  Let us call him Kip.

  I will not name anyone, nor any institution, in this space. I believe we are now working toward a resolution of his problems. There is no need to blame individuals. But the story is so universal in its tragedy of a single life marginalized in a system that values process over people that it bears telling. All of you should read it as a warning. Hopefully some of our governors will read it as a plea.

 When I arrived in the hospital ward I almost missed Kip. I asked one of the other patients if he was in the room. The woman said yes, ”He’s right there!” I still didn’t quite have my bearings and she repeated “There!”. Kip had arranged himself in a chair at the foot of his bed and wrapped the hospital curtain divider around him. The only side that was open was the one facing the window!

 Kip is five foot nothing if that. Very thin. Sitting there in his hospital gown staring pensively out the window, he literally managed to make himself disappear from the surroundings he so loathed. Despite his size he has a large head and bright, piercing eyes. They miss nothing. When I introduced myself he was profuse in his thanks that I came. Then he began his tale of woe.

 Kip is in his early eighties. He lives alone and has no family here. Originally from Bombay he has university degrees and worked as a government inspector before his retirement. He is spry and very alert. But in May something happened.

 Kip was found in his apartment unconscious. He had been there for at least a day and a half and neighbours complained of a bad smell. Kip had soiled himself and was lying in his own waste.

 He was taken to one of our large hospitals and his wounds were treated. He had lesions, cuts and bruises on his right leg. He was treated for his physical injuries and put into a room to recover. His care from the medical doctors was superb and they are all satisfied with his recovery. But the psychiatric evaluation is what has kept him there so long.

 Kip you see is a pack rat. Not an uncommon condition, but one that upsets our sanitized society’s state of mind. He likes to keep books and newspapers. They are neatly stacked everywhere. Kip claims that his falling unconscious was the result of an attempted burglary by two people who knew he had rare books. He claims they hit him repeatedly and that was why he passed out. But since he passed out, there is no record of the alleged incident with police.

 The psychiatrist and social worker who examined Kip believe that he fell and injured himself. There is nothing in the medical reports to indicate that he might have suffered a stroke or indeed that he has any medical condition whatever which he asserts he does not. But because there is no record of a break-in, the psychiatrist and social worker felt he could not be left to live alone as he wants to.

 They then did three things as recorded in his file. They sent a letter to Kip’s landlord advising him that his lease is to be terminated. They told Kip he no longer had an apartment and that his things were in storage. And they recommended that he be placed under the public curator. But Kip surprised them. He sprung into action.

 The first thing he did was to call his landlord whom he had known for thirty years. The landlord said that he was not cancelling his lease. He knew the dangers of curatorship. The landlord confirmed that Kip’s belongings were still there. And he said he could come back anytime as long as he first brought someone to clean out his apartment.

 Kip then called the hospital’s ombudsman. He did not just want to walk out because he was afraid that with what the psychiatrist had written in his file, police might be sent to take him into psychiatric detention. Kip also started to talk. To anyone and everyone. He was looking for someone to call who could organize some help to clear his file and get him out. A patient he spoke to suggested he call me. That’s how my summer vacation didn’t happen.

 Kip is of such sharp mind that he has managed to collect all the documents about him including a photocopy of the file. In reading it, there was another item in the psychiatric evaluation that stunned me. The doctor had written that Kip had moderate Alzheimer’s. I have spent hours with this man and he remembers everything from the 1930s to the minute before. In detail. He identifies people with their middle names! Kip is fragile, but Alzheimer’s?

 I decided immediately to help this man. I first went to see his landlord and confirmed that Kip was welcome back on condition that he throw out a lot of his stuff. Kip agreed. The landlord was most sympathetic, didn’t mind the late rent since Kip’s hospitalization, and was acutely aware of the problems of curatorship. He had even read about the cases we tackled and wrote about in this paper freeing people from curatorship. Particularly the stories about Laszlo Guttman and Erna Dietrich. And he had read about our stories on the work of Ura Greenbaum, founder of the Association for the protection of citizens from curatorship. He said he would help in any way he could.

Meanwhile, the psychiatrist and social worker were trying to get Kip to see an evaluator from the curator’s office. Kip stubbornly, and rightly, refused. I continued to shake the institutional tree. I called everyone. The doctors, the hospital chairman, the medical director  and the head of professional services. I also brought Ura into the file. Kip understood the condition under which he could go home again, and also agreed to supervision from a CLSC nurse. Ura is now organizing that.

 After some ten days I finally got a call from the hospital’s public affairs director. The doctors had been instructed not to speak with me. That I was to deal through him. He is an intelligent and seemingly compassionate fellow. He conceded that perhaps the initial mental workup had been too severe. New evaluations are now ongoing. The CLSC is being contacted and we are trying to find some workers to help Kip clear his place.

 Every time we give Kip some good news his eyes fill with tears and his gratitude is overwhelming. You can almost see him pulling himself into the lifeboat. The sad thing is thinking about all the people who can’t reach a Ura Greenbaum, or someone like myself, and who have no access to compassionate authority. As in the Guttman and Dietrich cases, and in so many others, the default position of mental health professionals seems to be “curator first.”

 My message to professionals and bureaucrats: there is no need for that. A little more work, a few more forms, and an individual can maintain the dignity that we are all entitled to. It is so easy to eliminate the pain that falls drop by drop upon the heart. Unless it is an extraordinary case, don’t open the draconian faucet of curatorship to begin with. Dare to care.


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