She came up behind me, silently, stealthily and full of mad malice. I was 21 years old, full of brisk, confident starched efficiency, my attention focussed on the ward dinner box which had just arrived from the hospital kitchen. I rummaged in my uniform pocket for my keys, aware that there was just over 2 hours remaining of my duty time at the hospital.
Ward 6A was the female security ward at Hillcrest Hospital, one of two government psychiatric hospitals in South Australia, and it was a locked ward. The women and girls within the ward were considered to be a danger, either to themselves or to the public, and several were diagnosed as criminally insane, hence the very strict security
“Relieving charge sister”, Matron had said, when she called me into her office to discuss the remaining 6 weeks of my time at the hospital, where I had achieved my post- graduate psychiatric nursing degree. “Just fill in until Sister Jepps returns from her annual leave; she suggested you were the right choice for 6A.” Flattered by Sister Jepps’ confidence in me, I agreed reluctantly, realising that my last day on duty would be just 4 days before my wedding.
Margaret, a 28 year old woman weighing 20 stone, was a chronic, aggressive patient, who had been ‘off’ for several days. Both the day and night ward report books noted such signs and symptoms as ‘obvious auditory hallucinations’, new cigarette burns to her forearms, a tendency to snarl, push and bully other patients who came too near and she had been under ‘close observation.’
“24 hours in a strong room (the ward had four of these) should cool her off,” the chirpy RMO had decreed the previous day. Released earlier in the afternoon, she was hoarse from screaming abuse at anyone who passed the tiny slats in her thick reinforced security door, and the ragged breathing should have warned me of Margaret’s approach.
As my key started to turn in the lock, she pounced, gripping at my throat from behind and forcing me backwards. “Don’t let go of your keys,” the tiny professional voice in my brain intoned. The idea of 48 of South Australia’s most dangerously disturbed women absconding from Ward 6A while I was the Charge Sister galvanised me into some kind of action. Was this fear I felt rising in my throat or just the early stages of anoxia from Margaret's vic-like grip around my neck?
Margaret’s left hand fingers gouged into my windpipe, reducing my gasps for air, as I twisted this way and that. She was growling in a primitive howl of pain, or, perhaps that noise came from me? It filled my ears as I squirmed to escape the hands of steel which were choking me and I felt the surge of the ‘fight or flight’ adrenalin kick into my system.
She snatched at my starched tulle cap, a symbol of hated authority, and my waist length blonde hair tumbled down. Again I twisted and writhed as Margaret wrenched great handfuls of hair out by the roots – her physical strength seemed immense and I couldn’t get a grip on her powerful body behind me. Struggling for air, I felt for her face, any vulnerable place, behind me, to stop her murderous grip. Filled with fear, my vision started to blur, my knees felt weak but my right hand still maintained its vicelike grip on my keys.
“Where are Gaye and Mick?” I remember thinking. Hospital protocol dictated that all nursing staff were to be present in the dining room for meals, especially in the security wards where mealtimes were often volatile and explosive. Patients crowded into the doorway, some of the women urging and cheering Margaret on, others eying the locked door to freedom and the outside world. Despite waves of dizziness, my grip on the keys still preoccupied my conscious thoughts but I could feel blood trickling down my throat and under my starched collar as Margaret’s fingers dug in deeper. I felt afraid; fearful that this immense madwoman would crush the life out of me and run rampaging out into the community.
Help arrived simultaneously on two fronts – Dr Peters entered the ward via the pantry door and my nurses pushed through the throng of jostling patients into the dining room. Margaret, shrieking foul obscenities and aiming clenched fists into soft body parts, was dragged unceremoniously to the strongroom, and was sedated heavily.
Collapsing to the floor, I succumbed to the violent shivers and teeth chattering which denoted the onset of shock and finally released my grip on my keys to a nurse. Patients crowded around, pointing and laughing at the dishevelled figure of authority on the floor as the nursing staff efficiently restored order to the huddle of confused, disturbed women milling around for their evening meal.
Someone crouched by my side, his hand pressing something cool on to my gouged throat. “Your colour is returning,” said Dr Peters. “Blue lips and chin is not in fashion for brides this year, Annie,” he joked as he led me shakily to my office, a handful of my hair clutched in his hand. A cup of hot sweet tea materialised from somewhere and I tried to suck the universal panacea through a straw down my painful, battered throat.
My departure from Hillcrest Hospital was hastily arranged by Matron who came to take over my post as Charge Sister of 6A. As she bundled me into a cab, she tried to reword her speech for the group of nurses and orderlies gathering in the Nurses Sitting Room for my farewell bridal party.
I remember the 17th October 1969 well. I was the bride who whispered her wedding vows, the dressings on my throat covered with powder and a carefully arranged pile of curls hiding the bald patches on my scalp, my sprained wrist wrapped with crepe bandage, tangible farewell mementos from Margaret in Ward 6A.
Annie this is an incredible story!! It sounds like something I've seen in the movie. My gosh can anything be more frightful?
Tom, it was and remains the most terrifying few minutes during my life time. Psychiatric patients can be frightening at times but this encounter with Margaret was in a category of its own as she was intent on strangling me. For weeks after she kept howling and grieving that'she nearly had the bitch'! And I knew just how close she'd come to closing off my airway, despite my best efforts of a) keeping the door locked and b) trying to save myself. Real life is always far more terrifying than movies!
Oh, Annie! This, you see, is precisely why I never liked psych nursing! How sad she had to pull your hair out just before your wedding - I could hardly believe it as a read. (But then again...)I was once attacked late at night in a parking lot, but fortunately for me my attacker was frightened off by a car that pulled into the lot. How fortunate Dr. Peters arrived when he did. That's about the closest close call I've ever read.
Thanks for your empathetcic comments, Susan, I'd had a few 'scrapes' during my post-grad Psych nursing training but nothing like this near fatal attack!Margaret was desperate to harm me for several reasons - a) I was now the youngest ever charge sister in 6A and b) the ward staff had been collecting signatures on a wedding card for me from all of the patients (unbeknownst to me) which ignited a further stream of anger and spite in Margaret. Poor Geoff Peters didn't know what to do with the great hunks of hair he gathered off the floor because I couldn't return it on my head which hurt so much from the wrenching and dragging! It was just ghastly!