The Last Place on Earth

Two years ago, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, the physician responsible for the health of the Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole, perhaps one of the most remote and dangerous places, the “last place on earth” as they call it, diagnosed herself with cancer during the middle of the brutal  Antarctic winter. She started herself on a course of chemotherapy, and the rest of her research team and officials back home, strategized on how to rescue her quickly. The station is totally cut off during the winter, with temperatures reaching -90 degrees, cold enough to turn jet fuel into jello.

The brave crew of a National Guard transport plane volunteered to make the almost suicidal flight, Jerri’s friends bulldozed a make-shift runway, and   at the cost of millions of dollars and at the risk of dozens of lives   the miracle was pulled off: Dr. Nielsen was rescued, returned to the States and to effective medical care. It was a wonderful story, a testament to the courage and generosity of the human spirit.

One of the most lasting memories I have of my hospitalization in a closed mental ward in Rochester in ’71, was of waiting for rescue. I was only 15, I hadn’t been violent, wasn’t using substances, had done nothing wrong, as far as I could tell. I was a depressed kid whose grades had dropped, whose spirit was hopeless, who felt totally alone and worthless. Some terrible mistake had happened, some paperwork was obviously lost, and I had been sent to the wrong place, a locked ward where the next youngest patient was 4 years older than I was. I was on “D” status: no visitors, phone calls, passes, or privileges. And because I objected to being there, I remained on this status for months. My chart read, “Will not conform to the therapeutic community.”

This “community” was a stone-cold 24-bed unit, with screens on the windows, a metal door, and security guards at every corner. Recreation consisted of a 15-inch TV set that was old when “Lucy” was new, a stereo lounge with a broken stereo, a “library” the size of a broom closet with paperback novels and old Reader’s Digests, and an isolation room, complete with the proverbial padding.

It was as cold and remote as Antarctica, but I knew that I wouldn’t be there long. The mistake would be discovered, the truth would come out, my pleas, first frantic, then quiet and thoughtful, then frantic again, would finally be listened to, and my parents, my family, some kindly doctor, “60 Minutes,” would have me released. If I put my face right up against the screen on the window in the lounge, right in the corner and scrinch my neck as far as I could, I could see an inch of blue sky between the buildings. Help would come. Rescue would arrive.

But as the months went by, I slowly realized the truth. There was no help. No rescue. The guards, the doctors, my family, the rest of the world, were all touched by grace. But I was one of the damned. I stopped looking at that inch of blue sky. I learned a whole new set of survival skills, skills learned in poverty, in bitterness, in discrimination, skills learned from the outcasts who believe they are banished from God’s sight. I learned how to hide what I felt, until even I didn’t know what was inside, to shield what was precious, so it couldn’t be used as a weapon against me. I learned to preemptively destroy whatever was soft or loving within myself, so that it couldn’t be destroyed by others. I learned to
play the games of deception with the doctors or anyone in authority, a skill that I utilized for years afterward with police, teachers, social workers. And like every man with his foot in a trap, I became a liar, trying to think as they did, say what they wanted to hear, be what I had to be.

A cat stuck in a tree was of more value than I was, and this sense of worthlessness, and the shame that comes with this emptiness, was perhaps the worst residual wound that I carried   a wound that poisoned my life and other attempts at effective medical treatment. And I wandered in the cold, in the dark, for decades.

This was thirty years ago and it still breaks my heart, still causes me to reflexively wince in certain conditions and events. What also breaks my heart is knowing how many now, in 2001, are still living in cold isolation, trapped in the arctic winter of their illness, the lack of long term medical care, the stigma of society, the loneliness of being one of “The Damned.”

Stalin said, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” Why is a single doctor at the South Pole more valuable than a man with schizophrenia living in a dirty residency in St. Paul? The rescue of that doctor was the right thing to do, but what about the millions with mental illness living lives just as life-threatening, just as cold, in jail cells, half-way houses, crummy low-rent apartments in the worst parts of town? What about the people self-medicating themselves into oblivion with alcohol? Or the seemingly “normal” people, struggling with OCD or depression, burning their energies and stomach linings to hide their medical condition from the world?

Each of us, in our own small ways, must tell the truth every day about this illness. We much each, in our own enormous ways, find somebody who’s suffering and call them, write them, e-mail them, today. Nobody else will do it. Only us. And if we go to their rescue, and tell the stories, others will follow. All of us must keep a candle in the window so that maybe some night, the lost ones, the ones in the cold, in the dark, will see the light, and they’ll find their way home.