My float preceptor, Jack, leans back in his chair by the computer. It is a quiet fall night on the orthopedics unit; our patients are sleeping, and pain medication isn’t due for an hour. The unit secretary just turned out the main lights, so the hall basks in a twilit glow. I hear the wail of wind outside the windows.
“It’s a good time for a ghost story,” Jack says. “Have you heard any of those?”
I demur; I have only been here six weeks. Surely there are no ghost stories in this famous temple to science and medicine.
“There are a lot here at St. Frances,” he assures me, seeing my skepticism. “This is one of the best. It happened to my friend up on Unit 5D….”
5D was the psych unit in the old days, now transformed into a pulmonary medical unit. Back then it was a locked unit known for the high rate of depression and suicide, but now it was bright and shiny and new with only a few reminders of its dark past…like the old metal-encased balcony.
A patient in Room 118 by the desk had just been discharged and his bed was turned over to a new patient, Ms. Delaney. She was in for a COPD flare but was doing very well; she was bright, alert, and oriented.
Her night nurse went in to give her a final breathing treatment. “Who was that man in here earlier?” Ms. Delaney asked. The nurse replied that she hadn’t seen anyone and she had been sitting at the desk, but Ms. Delaney insisted the man had come in and rummaged through her drawers. He had mumbled something but the patient had been watching television and hadn’t paid attention, thinking he was a staff member. The nurse shrugged but didn’t worry about it. Maybe respiratory, she thought.
Around 10:00 the patient’s call light came on. “Will you people keep that patient out of my room?” Mrs. Delaney demanded when the nurse went in.
The nurse looked at her, confused. They didn’t have anybody who was up and walking on this unit except Ms. Delaney. “How did you know he was a patient?” she asked.
“He was wearing a gown and what looked like a bathrobe…” The nurse did a quick assessment. Ms. Delaney seemed completely in her right mind except for her perseveration on this imaginary visitor. Finally, the nurse assured her she had been mistaken and turned out the lights for her.
At two o’clock in the morning, Ms. Delaney let out a terrifying shriek that brought all the unit staff running to her room. She was sitting bolt upright in bed and hyperventilating.
“What happened ?” everybody asked.
“You have to keep him out!” Ms. Delaney kept saying.
Finally Ms. Delaney calmed down enough to explain. “I woke up in the night and he was standing there, that patient in the bathrobe with no arms. And he was just staring at me. Just staring.”
Ms. Delaney demanded a room change and slept peacefully the entire night. But the nurses all wondered what she had seen… especially when they remembered what a straitjacket looks like…
As Jack finishes his story, I shiver. The hall suddenly seems a few degrees colder and the hall’s twilight has taken on a sinister darkness. “Thanks for sharing,” I say.
He just smiles mysteriously. “You’ll have your own to tell someday, I’m sure.” He turns back to his computer as I try to get that image out of my mind.
The dark-eyed specter from a psychiatric ward standing at the foot of a bed… staring….