"Work of National Importance"

"Work of National Importance"

Excerpts from "Work of National Importance," by Michael Marsh:


“It’s a tough job if you’re sensitive; no doubt of that. Working steadily month after month in a mental hospital isn’t horrifying, nor scaring, nor physically exhausting for most; the toughness lies in the constant wavelike erosion of one’s nervous balance, the unconscious dripping way of one’s reserve of kindliness and tolerance. Especially is this so at Philadelphia State Hospital, where conditions have never been superior and where now, one year after our unit’s arrival, the personnel shortage is greater than ever. The smokers among us seem to smoke more, little irritations annoy us more, we are no longer as gentle and understanding with the patients as we used to be, no longer as enthused for reform.”

“…Of all the buildings we have worked in here, we have probably done the best job in 2-West. This is a ward of fifty sick, injured, or dying men, of whom thirty-odd are bed patients, including a considerable number of incontinents. Unlike ‘A’ Building, in fact more nearly than almost any other building on the male side, 2-West exhales a certain elan [sic], a true hospital air, the spirit of a place where cure is possible and individual care is given. Almost since the start of our unit this ward has been completely staffed by C.O.s, and though the number has gradually been reduced from six or seven men on the three shifts to three men and sometimes four, the spirit still persists. The work is hard and is made harder by the difficulty of finding worker patients who will work steadily in this ward to help the attendant with the menial labor. Seven times every twenty-four hours the beds of all wet or soiled patients are systematically changed, most of them by the attendant; and many individual changes are made between times. The attendant also helps serve the meals, helps dress and undress the patients and bathes them, supervises the cleaning, procures supplies, and assists the nurse with dressings.”

“There are rewards for all this work. Gradually, owing to continued better care, the large ulcerous bedsores which many of the bed patients had on our arrival here have almost completely cleared up. In contrast to ‘A’ Building, the odor of the incontinents is quite absent from the ward. Some of the older men, who seemed destined to end their lives in bed, have been able to get up and sit on the porch. Among the injured and sick, many have healed and been sent back to their buildings.”

“It is debatable whether 2-West or ‘A’ Building is a more difficult place to work. Both have a largely similar type of patient. In 2-West there is much more personal contact with the patients, coupled with harder physical work; while in ‘A’ Building, a large structure housing 350 patients, there is more running around, a heavier burden of supervisory work, and infinite details to care for. Since our last newsletter, describing ‘A’ Building, the number of men working there on the three shifts has been decreased from thirteen to eight, including six C.O.s, with one man still occupied full time with caring for the laundry. Care of the patients and of the building has naturally retrogressed, but since so much of the burden has always rested on the shoulders of worker patients, and since the patients are now able to spend their days in the fenced yard outside the building, the retrogression has so far been moderate.”

“In ‘B’ Building, where three C.O.s are working on the second and third shifts, the tension grows, not out of the work itself, which is chiefly done by the worker patients, but out of the constant alertness needed. A large number of the 350 patients in this building are classed as violent, and attendants may at any time have to break up a fight or defend themselves from attack. The attendant’s physical security is considerably protected by a group of extremely tough worker patients who keep order through fear of their fists. This regime is naturally distasteful to us but our men in the building, while still trying to make friends with the patients, have felt obliged to rely on it. The paid attendants who work with us feel that repression is the only workable system; and the building can hardly operate on two bases, half slave, half free. Nor are there sufficient attendants available to establish a more moral system of order.”

“…Most of us, sunk in routine, troubled vaguely by the monotonous psychological impact of the sick environment around us, searching for relaxation in our free time, require a conscious effort to recall the meaning of our group’s work here and to preserve a balanced view of tits efforts. When we do make this effort we are undeniably discouraged by our failures. Yet balancing these great failures against what has been accomplished, we must still feel that we are doing an important work. We are performing on the average at least as well as the men who would ordinarily have these positions, and some of us are doing outstanding jobs. If we were not here, there would be no one to take our place. Even as it is, the need is horribly severe. Without us it might well be catastrophic.”


--Taken from Rhythms, a publication of camp #49. First Anniversary Issue: September 1943. p3-4, 14. In "Camp #49: Philadelphia, PA. 'Rhythms,' 1943," folder 17/17, series IX-13-1. MCC Records Collection, Akron, PA.