Pueblo County, Colorado
Insane Asylum

Working for the Insane Asylum
written by Senorina Acuna Gonzales

On September 2,1952, I was hired, after taking a written test in the main office, in the Gray Building. There were 7 of us ,whom had been sent to the State Hospital from the employment office with our applications for possible employment on the Psychiatric Wards. I was surprised that the written test was given in the office. They scattered us around, sitting us among the staff members, who were typing, answering the different telephone calls, it was very noisy.

I was given a straight chair and assigned to take the test on the corner of a desk next to a secretary, who was typing with a very loud type writer. The lady, who was wearing a white uniform and a white cap, I assumed was a nurse went around and placed the test papers upside down in front of me and the rest of the applicants. She said, “Do not turn your test over until I tell you to do so.” She was shouting loudly in order to be heard. She had an old fashioned hand clock in her hand, which was like an alarm clock, “tick, tock” and she placed it right on my corner of my test area. I couldn't believe it!! She then said, “Turn your test papers over and start!! When I yell, “STOP. YOU STOP.” I was feeling very uncomfortable by then. I plugged my left ear with my left hand and I rushed through the test, answering all the questions on my 1st impulse. I raised my hand and the nurse came and picked up my test paper and soon after that she shouted, “STOP!” She went around and picked up all the other tests. She said, “All of you stay where you are, I'll be calling each of you. She returned after a few minutes. She called out the first girl, first and last name and said, “Sorry but you failed the test, then she proceeded with the rest of names, one by one, they all had failed, each one left the office. Soon I realized I was the last one left, I grabbed my purse expecting the bad news. I thought if I failed, “I want to see that test paper.” She came over to the desk and said, “You got 100 on your test. Miss Charlene, {not her real name} the Nursing Director wants to see you in her office right away. Come with me."

She introduced me to her and she said, “We need people like you to take the Psychiatric Classes, the next class will start on November 1,1952, but in the meantime you can work on the wards. What shift do you prefer to work?" I replied, “I'd like to work the day shift, because my husband and I have 3 little children; 3, 2 and 1 year old. But I'm sorry, I don't have the money to buy the white shoes, the white hose, and the white uniform that you require to start working right away." She said, “Honey you can take a whole week to borrow some money from your relatives and get ready for this job. The day shift hours are 6:30 am to 2:30 pm. You will have one day off, you will be paid $94.00 every month. You will be working for the STATE OF COLORADO, you will be fine.” ”Then after you complete your Psychiatric Class, you will make more money,. I know you will make a very good employee .

On Tuesday, September 2,1952, I reported to work.

The gate man, who was at the big wide black rod iron gate on the 13th street, asked me for my I.D. I didn't have one yet, so he called the office and he said ,“You are O.K. but you will need to get a hospital I.D. with your photo as soon as possible, otherwise we can't let you in to these grounds. Get a note or some verification that you are a new employee here.” I told him, “This is my 1st day to work here and I wasn't told about this but I will do as you say. I went on to the Gray Building and I requested the gate pass immediately and got it from the nurse, who had given us the test.

She escorted me to my 1st assignment, on Ward 12. She was very nice to me as we walked across the hospital lawns. I could hear the screaming and yelling of patients, who were at the wards' windows, behind black rod iron bars. In fact, I glanced around and I seen that all the windows on the buildings on the hospital grounds had black rod iron bars. I said, “I'm scared to death.” She then told me that her name was Francine, {not her true name} she said, “Don't be afraid these patients won't hurt you. Some patients have been in the hospital for many years, some are very confused. Some are diabetic, some are senile and some are handicapped, unable to help themselves, even to eat.” She said, “Our hospital census is close to 7,000 and we are short of good employees.”

She had given me 2 keys. One was extra big and she said, ”Never lose these keys, because you will lose your job. You need to get yourself some type of heavy cord and tie it around your waist and keep your keys tied to the cord and keep them in your uniform pocket all the time, out of sight.” She had a bunch of keys with the one extra big key, that unlocked the wide metal door. Then she locked it. At this moment I felt so scared, I hid behind her. She said, “It's normal to be afraid, but you will feel different after a couple of days.” She unlocked another door, then another door to Ward 12. There seemed to be so many ambulatory patients wearing the same pattern, printed dresses. They came to me, mumbling and touching my hair. I stood there not knowing what to do. It was so noisy, I couldn't hear the nurse when she introduced me to the Ward Charge, who in turn called a patient helper, to orientate me to the ward area where I was to work. The Charge said, “We're short one employee because she got injured on duty and she may not be returning to work on this ward, but you will have a good helper. Helen, {not her real name] who has come to help us today and she is as good as an employee. She then introduced Helen to me and I followed her to the work area.

She said, “I come from another ward to help out, just watch me for a little while and I'll teach you all I know.” She seemed to know all the patients, and all the procedures. I couldn't believe that she was a patient in the hospital. She said, “I have a drinking problem, so I ended up in here. All these 24 bedridden patients will be yours to care for and to feed. But don't worry I will help you today. I know all of them very well. They are all restrained in bed, for safety reasons. I'll show you how to special them, with a lot of care because they are very fragile and helpless. We have one very combative patient, who has hurt many employees. She is partially paralyzed, so be extra careful around her.” I said, “Please point her out to me right now.” She said, “She doesn't speak English at all. She's in the last bed, next to the wall to the extreme left.” We stood at the door way of a big dormitory and I immediately saw that she was Latina. I greeted her in Spanish saying, “How are you? She answered me in Spanish, with a big smile and asked, “Are you going to work here?” I answered, “Si”, {yes } but I can only work if someone sings to me. She said “Oh, I love to sing in Spanish!” So she started to sing in Spanish and I joined her in singing, “Ceilito Lindo.” She appeared so happy that the Charge of the Ward had just appeared to check on me and my patient helper. She said, “Gonzales I can't believe what I am seeing and hearing. Mari {not her true name} singing!" I felt so relieved and I knew then that I was going to be able to communicate with Mari. Later in the morning, I met the 3 other attendants, who were very glad to meet me, saying ,“We are so glad to have you here, please stay. We work short all the time. Most new employees, that come to work here, throw their keys on the desk and quit after a couple of hours. It's hard work but these patients need to be taken care of so badly.” I said, “I plan to stay and work here until I go to class.”

The staff on ward 12 were very nice to me, they told me “our census on this ward is 130 patients and most other wards have the same census of 130 patients". There were beds every where, even in the hallways with patients restrained with waist leather belts and some were restrained with brown cotton stockings attached to their ankles. The wards started with numbers #1 thru 42 on the 13th Street entrance. All the even numbers were female wards and the uneven numbers were for male patients. On ward 12, we had no medications, other than insulin for the diabetics, aspirin, Phenobarbital and dilantin for patients who suffered seizures. We had several patients who had terminal cancer, some were so young; this was very sad. We did our best to make them comfortable, when someone passed away, we had to bathe them and put them in a shroud for the mortuary.

We were responsible for all the floors in our work area, mopping them daily. Once a month, we attendants had to scrub, and mop all of the ward, and oil the wooden floors with some type of oil that smelled like pine. This was very hard work but we all pitched in, and joked about it and before we knew it, we were done. We were out of breathe by then, we took a 20 minute coffee break. I didn't drink coffee so I drank tea. We were responsible for half of our census, 65 of them, to get them out of bed and shower them twice every week. We bathed about 30 of them before breakfast then after the coffee break, we took the rest of them to the shower. I was the youngest employee so I volunteered to get into the shower and soap and wash each patient and rinse them well. I was soaking wet but I didn't mind because I wore state clothing, then I'd change to dry clothing. I helped feed my patients breakfast then we'd be ready to take the other 35 patients to the shower and again I'd soap, wash and rinse them as fast as I could. The other attendants and our patient helpers had freshly made the beds for our clean showered patients. I was told that it was against the hospital's rules to pray for these patients, who were dying from cancer. I thought, “I am very religious and nobody is going to stop me from saying some prayers for these poor people.” I'd pray in my own silent way. I got so attached to my 24 bedridden patients that when October 1952 came, I decided to call Miss Charlene{not her real name} to check with her about me postponing going to the Psychiatric Class in November. She said, “Honey, since you have 3 little babies, just write me a note, and I'll excuse you and when you feel you are ready to take the class, write me another note and you can then take the class” which I did, 4 years later.

I had a lot feelings about leaving such good co-workers and patients, which I loved to take care of. But my Doctor had told me that I was pregnant and therefore I needed to work light duty, and no more lifting. I was assigned to work up on 17th street hospital grounds, where the patients were all ambulatory. This was in 1956, and the rumors were that the hospital might be seeing some types of psychiatric medications in 1 or 2 years. That was exciting. I was very fortunate, that I was assigned to Near North wards, filling in for the ward charges on their one day off. They were called one employee wards, starting with ward 50 thru 58 and by coincidence my supervisor was Francine R. N. [not her true name ). I was so happy to have her as my immediate boss. In speaking with her, I told her that I was pregnant, so she checked with the director of nursing and I was scheduled to start the Psychiatric Class shortly. I definitely would not complete it, so she checked with Miss Charlene {not her real name} and again she said, “Write me a note,” and you will be in the next class.” I became very attentive, reading case charts, Dr.'s notes, intake notes, and memorized the 50 patients names on those wards and their diagnosis. I looked up medical terms in the dictionary because I didn't want to waste my time. The duties were so easy. The Psychiatrist came to each ward every morning, making his rounds and signed the Day Book. This was so different from ward 12, it was very interesting to me. Soon Francine R.N. {not her real name} asked me to take her phone calls while she was gone to lunch. These included Dr's orders, which I was allowed to take. Then the Doctor would counter sign them on his ward rounds. One day my supervisor came to the ward that I was working and she said,“ I'll stay on the ward while you go to the Gray Building and request to take the Charges Test. If you pass, you will get a 5% raise for the job that you have been doing. If you fail you have nothing to lose, because you will be going to Class as soon as you return from your pregnancy leave. You are a very smart employee, I think you will make it.” So, I did exactly what she told me and I took the test and I passed, I got the raise in pay. I worked until 2 weeks before having our baby, who was born on January 13,1958 healthy and beautiful.

I returned to work, in the same Unit, attended the Psychiatric Classes in 1958. By then, we had the 1st psychiatric medication, Thorazine Spansules. We had fairly good results. Family members showed up to sign permission for their loved ones, who were psychotic or suffered from other emotional problems. It was such a wonderful feeling to see the positive changes in our patients. Of course some were not so lucky, they had bad reactions from the medication. Soon after that they changed the medication to Thorazine capsules and to the liquid form.

I graduated from class and soon I became pregnant again. I continued to work until 10 days before our baby was born. My supervisor said, “When you return from your leave, you will be scheduled to take the 1st Senior Psychiatric Class, but for now, “Please go sign up and take the Licensed Practical Nurse test. Again, I think you will do well. If not, you can take it later. I shall stay on the ward while you go apply.” I followed her advice, I took the test and I passed it. I got my L.P.N. license. We had a Medical Dr., who came from Colorado Springs once a month to do physicals on our female patients. Because I had received my L. P. N. I had the opportunity to help him with the physicals and make out his prescriptions which he checked and signed. By this time, there were plans to have special talking groups, therapies for patients and other medications were discussed.

I took my leave and my beautiful baby was born on November 16,1960. I returned back to work on the same unit and had taken a state test, called Comprehensive test, for a promotion. I rated high and I was assigned to be 2nd Charge on a Adolescent Ward. Our census was 50 teen age girls. This was a very stressful job. We had to use restrains almost daily. For several hours many times, we'd give these teenage girls medications to help them control their behavior. They fought with each other and argued with the Dr. The hospital was in the process of planning Decentralization, which was beginning to slowly take place, this was approximately 1961-1962.

I found out that I was pregnant again, so I had to be extra careful; even if I had a good rapport with the teenagers.

Soon we were notified that we were being moved, and I was assigned as Charge of a female Detention ward, which was in Denver-Metro division, in an updated newer building. There was a safety office area for staff. The hospital police were hired to help ward staff restrain the upset and threatening patients, who were a danger to themselves or others.

The hospital hired janitorial services. This gave staff more time to dedicate to the patient's care, one to one therapy was started, and other types of therapies such as spouse and family sessions were being discussed. Which I got interested in, and so involved that I had not requested my pregnancy leave. We had 2 days off a week at this time.

I had no idea that our baby would be born early. She was born on my day off, on November 29,1962. The hospital secretary had to go to the hospital to have me sign all the necessary forms for my leave. I was notified that my request to transfer to work the swing shift was granted, as Charge on my same Detention ward.

I remained 5 years on that job and we got the status, “no injuries on duty.” We worked very closely as a team, in a dangerous setting. I was very proud of our “team”. I was approached by my male supervisor about signing an agreement to work 20 hours and attend college courses 20 hours every week, to become an R.N. Since my name was on the selected list, this was done thru the hospital and your paycheck would remain the same. In other words, the hospital would pay for all college books and the tuition. I told him, “I am sorry , but I have to refuse this opportunity because I have 6 children at home to take care of and 3 of them are babies. One is only 3 months old, the other ones are 2 and 4 years old. I am proud to have been selected, but this is not the right time for me and my family.” He said, “I understand, and I am making a nice documentation next to your name right now”.

I then started to work closely with our psychologist, learning all types of therapies, especially the spouse-family sessions and other important information regarding Mental Health, besides my Charge duties.

In 1967 I took all my children on a vacation to California, to visit our relatives. I called Metro State Hospital in Norwalk, California to see if I could visit their hospital, to compare our “hospital treatment” with theirs. The Director of Nursing said, “I'd be delighted to show you our hospital, please come." So I did, a nurse escorted me to his office and he said, “Please tell me, how is Miss Charlene, {not her real name}. I'm from Pueblo, Colorado and I worked at the State Hospital many years before I came here." I was so surprised, I couldn't believe it. He laughed and said, “I am so happy to have you come here." He then proceeded to ask me about other administration staff members, who were still working in the main office. He even asked, ”Does the present Hospital Superintendent still live in that big beautiful 6 bedroom mansion on the grounds on the 13th Street entrance?" I replied, “yes.” He put his hands behind his neck and leaned back on his high back leather chair, smiling, and said, “I can hardly wait until I tell my wife about your visit. She also worked those wards." I said, “I really would like to tour your hospital.” He said, “I have already made arrangements for a nurse to take you on a tour through the whole hospital. Whatever wards, you are interested in seeing. If you have any questions now, I'll be glad to answer them". I said, “I'm anxious to see what type of therapies you use. Besides O.T., exercise, gym and one to one. By then the nurse appeared , he introduced her to me and I thanked him and we left, the tour was very interesting because many ambulatory patients were in different types of sessions and therapies." The nurse showed me their medication stations. T

Their laundry rooms had washers and dryers, which we didn't have. I made notes on a small pad ,which I had taken with me. I saw their beautiful dining rooms, swimming pools. I saw that their hospital settings were so much more advanced than ours, due of course to their different climate the year around. Sitting out in beautiful flower gardens, some gardens had tall walls and others were in less restricted areas. They had so many beautiful palm trees and many big green plants inside hospital areas, where the different therapies were held. Also, many walking areas within the walls. I thanked the nurse for the nice reception and tour and I left, feeling very happy about the experience. When I returned to work, I shared my tour experience with my supervisor and my co-workers and I made a brief presentation to our other wards within our division, regarding the tour.

In 1975, I decided to enroll in the University of Southern Colorado, to attend the required classes in the morning and work my 40 hour week on my same ward, the swing shift for 2 years. I was 52 years old then, but the students were great with me, some of them used to say to me, “Gee I wish my Mom, would get motivated like you and come and take some classes.” I really enjoyed going to college. I had to rush, because I never wanted to be late to my job. I studied during my 1 hour lunch break on the ward, where we were allowed to eat our lunch. When I was selected for Who's Who, that made my Day. I graduated in 1976, received my Degree of Associate in Applied Science with Distinction, and that was another unforgettable Day for me.

In 1980, the hospital discussed having a HISPANIC RESEARCH PROGRAM. This was funded and approved by the STATE OF COLORADO. There were 11 employees selected. To qualify, you had to be bilingual, and have the knowledge of the Hispanic Culture. I was fortunately one of the 11 selected. We had our own Psychiatrist, our own Psychologist, our own Social Worker, occupational therapist and our own recreational therapist. They were all Bilingual. When we received newly admitted patients from Admissions, we greeted them in Spanish, and did interviews in Spanish. We had Spanish music, we had therapies in Spanish, we had herbs if they felt they needed them and of course they were referred to our Psychiatrist for Dr's Orders. We would all pitch in and make or take some Mexican foods. Of course, we even had our patients dancing to the Spanish music. We were able to discharge the Hispanic patient much sooner due to the understanding and the better communication of the Spanish Culture, the HISPANIC RESEARCH PROGRAM was a success.

I definitely feel very fortunate to have seen the greatest changes in the State Hospital from custodial care to the wonderful treatment with so many new medications, and the different therapies. I especially feel the spouse and family sessions helped so many families to understand Mental Illness and accept their loved ones back into their families.

I was involved as a therapist and had a co-therapist working with families for approximately 6 years. I saw the patients respond to having day passes, weekend home passes, and being moved into half way homes and even into their own apartments in the community, with follow up from the hospital and eventually from the Mental Health Centers through the State of Colorado.

In 1988, I realized that I had done my mission of helping others. I felt a lot of gratification of being part of the contribution to these tremendous changes that benefited the mentally ill and emotionally ill patients. I had put my whole heart into my work and I loved doing it for 36 and one half years. It was time for me to retire, which I did on April 28,1988. Senorina Acuna Gonzales

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