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Close Call: A Memoir of Madness

(page 1 of 5)

In the spring of 1999, while I was in Rome with my eldest daughter and researching a book about the city, I suffered a complete mental breakdown. I spent 26 days in the Rome American Hospital, six of them in the intensive care unit, under the supervision of a team of doctors headed by an eminent Italian neurologist. When I’d begun to recover and was stable enough to travel, I flew back to San Diego, where I was immediately checked into Sterling, our local hospital, a medical facility we trusted and where my wife, Alice, had worked as a nurse. (Some of the names of the institutions and people in this account have been changed.) We both assumed that the worst was over; although I was still very weak, I was at least again making sense.

Before leaving for Italy, I’d had a complete physical examination and was found to be in good health. I had been walking, playing tennis, swimming and leading a normal active life for

a man in his early 70s. At Sterling, I expected I would now be correctly diagnosed and put on appropriate medications. My breakdown apparently had been caused by some sort of biological phenomenon for which there were now effective drugs and also psychiatric care. What had happened to me was unusual at my age, coming as it had out of the blue. But according to documented studies, about a third of the population in this country suffers at some point from a serious mental disorder—depression, psychosis, addiction, various forms of mania. What I had gone through, I was assured, was not incurable or even likely to recur. I would soon resume my normal life.

I could not have imagined the nightmare that ensued.

Sterling, the hospital we had counted on and believed in, had become, due to cutbacks in staff and other ruthless attempts to trim costs, a dangerously inefficient facility in less than two years. The nurses—underpaid, buried under avalanches of bureaucratic procedures and forced to care for too many patients at a time—were demoralized and exhausted. At our own expense, Alice hired round-the-clock private personnel to ensure I’d receive adequate care. I needed help to get in and out of bed, to bathe, even to walk.

During the nine days I spent at Sterling, I was also placed under the care of a psychiatrist I’ll call Evan Springer. He saw me only twice during my stay, prescribed several mood-stabilizing drugs and told us he was leaving on vacation for two weeks. Meanwhile, I was to be sent home, where I would presumably take the prescribed medications and continue steadily to recover my health and my sanity.

No sooner had I been discharged, however, than Alice discovered I had been taken off the drugs Springer had prescribed. When she called his office to query this decision, Springer had already left, and no one seemed to know anything about it. She was informed only that I had been taken off the drugs earlier, while still in the hospital. She was appalled and fearful. At her insistence, Springer’s office did call in a prescription for a mild sedative, but the net effect of his or the hospital’s actions was that I was being sent home to survive, if I could, on my own.

I fought to remain sane. Agitated and frightened, I paced the rooms of our house. I walked outside from time to time; I watched television; I attempted to nap, even as panic again began to overwhelm me. I swallowed the medications prescribed by Springer’s office, but they didn’t help much.
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