Lillie - a study of Faith

Being alone, truly and completely alone, should not be a burden carried by a human being for long. I’m not sure we were born for it. Our lives are such fragile existences just as they are – it only takes one blow to unhinge the mechanisms which hold us together. There are few who can survive for long in such conditions. I was lucky to have known such a woman, one who had survived essentially alone in a cacophony of insanity for fifty years.

My mother was a charge nurse at Wingdale State Hospital in Wingdale, New York. It was a facility where the crazies and mentally handicapped were housed until the 1970’s when the government dismantled these facilities and dumped most of the inpatients onto the streets. Mom worked in the wards for the elderly insane women. It was there she met Lillie.

Lillie was in her seventies when Mom discovered her. She was in a general ward – a huge room where twenty women were housed – all bedridden. These women were certifiable. They rocked in their beds . . . moaning, crying, or screaming – never silent. They clutched toy dolls to their chests, hollow remembrances of children who no longer visited or never were. Their matted, tangled hair hung strangled down their back. The aroma of urine seeped into your pores when you were there, its reek steeped in the air, always stronger than any antiseptic could cover. You can’t imagine the din. It was awesome, ferocious, never ending.

When she was twenty-eight, Lillie immigrated from Sweden to marry the love of her life. Two weeks after the wedding, he dropped dead for an aneurism. In shock, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to Wingdale where she began the slow process of piecing herself back together. However, the state of New York had a catch-twenty law in place . . . once admitted to a state hospital, only a relative who could sponsor her could check her out. All Lillie’s relatives were, unfortunately, in Sweden. She was trapped.

For years she worked in maintenance and housekeeping, cleaning out bed pans and washing floors. The state had a cheep source of slave labor. It certainly wasn’t glamorous but it filled her days. It was a tentatively workable solution until she fell and broke her hip.

During her convalescence, arthritis set into her body. Suddenly bedridden, she had to draw on inner resources to survive. But she took it a step further and fell back on her spirituality. Her faith was awe inspiring. It was dynamic and fluid. You could not witness it and fail to be changed in ways small or profound. The staff seemed undeterred by the love which radiated from her spirit but those she met through my mother came away inspired. They believe more because she did and it was inconceivable that she could have such a strong spiritual foundation in the face of such adversity.

And adversity it surely was. My Mom started working at the “hospital” as a charge nurse when Lillie had been an inmate for about fifty years. My Mom didn’t stay long at Wingdale. She was horrified by the unspeakable conditions in which these women existed. Care was demeaning, depersonalized and cruel. Bed sores abounded, some breaking down to the bone. When showers were given, it was on steel beds under ice cold water. Patients lay in their own filth for far too long. Food was withheld as a means of punishment and control. Aides ran the floor as the nurse sat behind the desk knitting. There was absolutely no positive stimulation, no television or radio, no music, no programs to look forward to, no sane voices; just the unending screaming and crying of the patients both day and night. It was in this environment Lillie passed her days, in complete sanity. When she met Mom, she had been bedridden for ten years. Her body a host to her faith and grace.

Mom started bringing me and a few of her friends to visit Lillie. At first I was uncomfortable, especially when she was in the general ward where so many were housed in the same room, but after meeting her, my attitude changed. We would bring some sweets and snacks, books, a radio. The radio brought her contact with the world outside her four walls for the first time since she was admitted fifty years before. Most of all, we would bring ourselves. Here’s the thing . . Lillie never once complained, never said a word against the staff, never talked about her health. She wouldn’t waste her breath. What she did want was to know what was going on in our lives and in the lives of those we loved – not in a prying way but to be supportive. She would pass her time between visits praying for ourselves and those who needed it.

Mom couldn’t believe the abuses being conducted at Wingdale. Seeing people live like that tore her apart. She began a campaign to enact changes. Starting with Governor Rockefeller and working her way down through the political and medical dignitaries she wrote letters detailing the atrocities. A week or so after she sent those, she wrote local authorities at the Hospital. In a private letter to the Governor, she cited specific abuses so an inspector would know where to look. The point was reveal what was going on before management could enact cover-ups. Inspectors finally came to investigate. They were told through Mom’s letter where to look . . . who had massive bed sores from not being turned in her bed, how patients were treated, who were abused on an ongoing basis. Within a month, the State Hospital began shutting down.

Sponsorship continued to be a problem for Lillie until Mom started working. Right away, they formed a special bond. Mom was heart sick about Lillie’s life. Lillie had lived with constant cruelties and tragedies. Mom made arrangements, as the result of a new law, to become Lillie’s sponsor and to transfer her to a nursing home Mom had begun working at. Mom achieved the special permission needed as she wasn’t a blood relation.

An immediate result of the whistle blowing campaign was that patients received complete medical evaluations. During Lillie’s pap smear, they discovered abnormalities. Further medical tests revealed she had cancer throughout her body. Mom’s plan to sponsor her upon release was dropped. Lillie’s transition to a life on the outside, albeit one in a nursing home, would prove too difficult for one so medically challenged. Mom was able to gain a private room for Lillie so her remaining days could be spent in comfort. They were short-lived, just like Wingdale’s future.

I remember Lillie as a being of Light, as an angel on Earth. I say that not for its poetic value or to milk emotion. She radiated love. You could not meet her and not be changed in a fundamental way. No one could live for forty years, in an open ward with nineteen other women, all of whom were insane, and remain sane as Lillie had done, amid the constant clamor with no one to talk to. She certainly didn’t get mental stimulation from the aides on duty. How did she do it? Monks and other religious people who live in isolation do it when they are either by themselves or living in a community that supports the isolation. The community creates and provides an environment for silence. But Lillie – what did she have? But Lillie – what did she have? There is no way I can completely convey the atmosphere of the open ward . . .row after row of hospital beds, toothless old crones strapped to their beds, holding dirty cloth dolls, caterwauling at ear-splitting din.. They were all in hospital gowns with stringy hair and vacant eyes above mouths that either cried or raged or moaned. I know I could not have survived it . . . I don’t know anyone who could.

Mom was able to fulfill one of Lillie’s desires. When she died, Mom made sure she was buried in a regular graveyard outside the Hospital, so she would not be buried in the Hos

Lillie - a study of Faith


Joined February 2008

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I once knew this incredible woman who was trapped in a mental institution. Her story always inspired me.

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  • cheridan
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