A few years ago while spelunking in my mother’s basement, looking for long-forgotten family treasure, I came across a stack of photocopied newspaper articles from the 1980s fastened together by a rusty paperclip. The articles, both fascinating and horrifying, reported on the unhealthy and unsafe conditions of Philadelphia State Mental Hospital: my mother’s workplace.

My mom was a registered nurse and worked throughout her early adulthood in a number of hospitals, both medical and psychiatric. Like many mothers of her generation, however, she put her career on hold to raise her kids. Yet once my brother and I were settled into our school routines, she reentered the workforce part-time as an in-home nurse for a couple of wealthy old women in the nearby town of Bryn Athyn. One of these women lived in a mansion that has since been turned into a museum.

Glencairn Museum
Photo by Michael Parker. CCA 2.5 License

But these house calls didn’t last long. Soon an opportunity arose for her to return to full-time employment with the state of Pennsylvania, which would offer a good salary, excellent benefits, and a handsome pension upon retirement. So she took a job at the Philadelphia State Hospital, a mental institution better known to those in the area as Byberry.

She enjoyed the new job, and she often came home with stories about the doctor who let her improve a patient’s treatment through better diet, or her favorite patient, Charlie, who had an unfortunate fondness for his own feces, or the orderlies who would walk off with TVs and phones and anything else that wasn’t locked down. Armed with only her training and quick wit, my 100-pound mother could talk down psychotic men twice her size. Despite an occasional inconvenience, like the time a patient poured his full bedpan on her head, forcing her to leave work early for the day, she liked her job and she loved her patients.

It’s not like she was ignorant of the hospital’s problems. She certainly had her share of frustrations, especially when it came to the mistreatment of the patients. Still, it came as a bit of a shock when I read those articles in the basement. The extent of the reported neglect and abuse was staggering. I’m not sure I would have named Byberry one of the top 10 most terrifying places on Earth, like one website did. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

Photo by John Webster (GoDDoG215)

According to one of the articles, deteriorating conditions and multiple reports of abuse led the Health Department to investigate the hospital, which resulted in a “29-page list of deficiencies and violations of state code [detailing] example after example of patient neglect.” Here are just a few:
byberry headlines

  • On the first day of the visit, 90 percent of the patients lacked underwear.
  • All floors were heavily soiled, as were all inside windows, which obstructed vision to the outside.
  • Roaches were seen crawling out of a staff telephone, in a locked patient lounge and in a medication room.
  • One patient was found strapped upside down in a chair, with her head pointed to the floor and her feet to the ceiling.

— Philadelphia Inquirer, May ? 1987

When I asked my mom about the roaches, she replied with typical understatement (I’m paraphrasing here): “Of course we had roaches. It was a really old building and there was no money to fix anything. They were always promising to fix things, but they never would. Anyway, when a cockroach would crawl across my desk, I’d just brush it away. It wasn’t hurting anyone.”

Maybe not, but it was clearly a symptom of a much larger problem. And Byberry had a long history of such problems. During World War II a group of Quakers were assigned to work at the hospital for “alternative service” because they were conscientious objectors, refusing to fight in the war. What they saw appalled them so much that one of them, Charlie Lord, sneaked a camera in and surreptitiously photographed the squalor and despair. The photos were published in the May 1946 issue of Life magazine. A 2009 report on NPR commemorating the Quaker pacifists described one of the wards as “a large open room with a concrete slab for a floor. There were no chairs. There were no activities, no therapy, not even a radio to listen to. So hundreds of men — most of them naked — walked about aimlessly or hunched on the floor and huddled against the filthy bare walls.”

mental ward - by Charles Lord
Photo by Charles Lord

What really struck me as I read the articles from the basement was how much my mom had shielded me from the difficult aspects of her job—unless she did tell me about them and I have since forgotten or was too self-centered as a teen to care in the first place. What I do remember is that she always managed to find something to laugh about in even the darkest moments. Humor kept my mom sane in one of the least sane places on Earth.

She has always been that way, willing to laugh at herself and daring to laugh in the face of absurdity. Growing up during the Great Depression, she was an only child raised by a divorced mother who was poor, sick, and angry at the world. Yet my mom’s memories of that time are full of grace and amused detachment, like when she talks about the man called Shorty who rented their uninsulated attic until my mom moved out and Shorty moved downstairs as my grandmother’s new husband. And now, at 87 years old, she still approaches life this way: with a youthful chuckle and a gee-whiz shrug and a full-on embrace of the crazy.

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