Thursday, September 3, 2009

It's a small world

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He was waving to me from a distance as I approached the bicycle rack on the campus of McGill University. I waved back. I unhooked the chain that secured my bike, then standing it up placed my books and notebooks in the basket. It was a gorgeous September day: I was looking forward to the ride home. When, a minute later, I glanced in the direction that my friend was waving from, I saw he was beckoning me, clearly in some distress. I climbed on my bike and peddled over to where he was standing; unable to move, seemingly.

“It’s these meds I've been prescribed,” he explained, “they have a side-effect that makes me have awful muscle spasms. I need relief. Bring me to the emergency ward, please. Will you?”

“Sure,” I said. I tied my bike up again, and walked him over to the parking lot where I asked a fellow student to drive us just up the hill, to the Royal Victoria Hospital.

When it came to arrange for him to receive medical care the nurse on duty asked that I provide information to help her complete an admissions form. One of the questions she asked was, “Religion?” I was about to say “Jewish” when he astonished us both with his sudden vehemence -- till then my friend had seemed distracted by his condition. “No ‘religion’!” he insisted. “No!”

Of course not. He had been raised in a Marxist household. Indeed 20 years earlier, during the McCarthy era, his father had been the object of surveillance by RCMP agents. Mind you, it was a comfortable, middle-class home that he hailed from. His extended family included a number of nimble tailors who cut and sewed Savile Row, pinstripe suits for bankers and cabinet ministers; one suit, intended for an organized crime-busting Justice Minister, even included a special vest pocket to insert a handgun.

As it turned out, he was minutes away from a 5 p.m. appointment with a family therapist and other family members at the hospital’s psychiatric wing, the Allan Memorial Institute. The nurse explained that inasmuch as he was due to meet with his own doctor so soon it would be pointless to summon another physician in the meantime.

We were on the path the led from the Royal Vic to the Allan. On a golden autumn afternoon, the walk was most pleasant. Suddenly, my companion emitted an anguished cry of distress, and picked up the pace.

“Oh, no! Oh, no! Here they come again!” By “they” he meant the muscle spasms; as they coursed through his body, he presented me with a tableau of grotesque bodily contortions. It was as if a demonic being was trapped inside of him, determined to escape, to break free.

I laughed at the ludicrous figure he cut. It was wrong, I shouldn’t have, I but I couldn’t help it. Which naturally angered him.

“Don’t laugh, dammit! Don’t laugh!”

“Sorry! Sorry!” I hastened to apologize, but then doubled over in an even stronger fit of laughter. All of which, of course, served to further anger and exasperate the poor bugger.

At last, we stood before the massive doors of the Allan Memorial Institute. We went inside. His parents were already there in the foyer, waiting for him to arrive.

“I’m leaving you in capable hands,” I said. “By the way,” I added, “you’ll be in good company: I understand the prime minister’s wife is a patient here.” Maggie Trudeau had been admitted several days earlier; according to media reports, she was said to be suffering from depression, from a bout of exhaustion, after a gruelling summer on the campaign trail, trying to get Pierre re-elected as Canada’s prime minister.

It would be April before I set foot again in the Allan, this time as an employee on the payroll. I was hired as a weekend caregiver: My job consisted of shadowing a single patient, to make certain he took his meds and did not harm himself or others. When I spoke to a supervisor about the Do’s and Don’t’s of the job, she asked only that I not wear a white shirt.

My imagination had pictured a couple of serene afternoons where I sat with a patient subdued by his dosage of meds while I’d quietly read my Herman Hesse and Kurt Vonnegut. Instead, I was paired with a hyper-kinetic young man, who was unable to sit still for any length of time. He was constantly on the prowl.

The supervisor on duty at the nursing station told me: “Consider yourself his shadow.” And so I trailed after him down the hospital corridors, to the reception areas, in and out of the washroom, where he tried to “hide” inside a stall. I waited by the pay phone, while he spoke to “Nixon” and “Brezhniev” in order to forestall World War III. And so on.

When I asked the supervisor for the name of his mental affliction, she replied: “He’s ... he’s ... [and, unable to dredge up a clinical term for it, simply blurted out] he’s just plain crazy.”

By Saturday afternoon, I was all done in trying to keep up with him; Sunday was virtually a re-run of Saturday. I never went back. And, I never gave the Allan a second thought, until the case of Dr. Ewen Cameron made headlines in 1977. By then, my friend had died of a heart-attack in the Douglas, a Montreal hospital that handles what are considered hard-core psychiatric cases; his body overcome by a top-heavy regimen of potent drugs.

Between 1957 and 1964, Dr Cameron, a Scottish-born psychiatrist, conducted a series of ghoulish, CIA-funded experiments in mind-control at the Allan Memorial Institute, using, often without their knowledge or consent, his patients as guinea pigs. His experiments involved LSD, various paralytic drugs, as well as well as electro-convulsive therapy at 30 to 40 times above the normal range.

Dr Cameron’s so-called "psychic driving" experiments consisted of putting his subjects into a drug-induced coma for months on end while playing tape loops of white noise or tape-recordings of simple, repetitive messages. His experiments were typically carried out on trusting patients who had gone to the institute seeking relief from minor problems, such as anxiety disorders and post-partum depression, many of whom suffered permanently from his actions; among them the wife of David Orlikow, a Winnipeg MP with the socialist New Democratic Party.

Far from being a rogue agent, Dr Cameron was for a time second President of the World Psychiatric Association, and a president of the Canadian and American psychiatric associations. The man was sprouting credentials all the way up to his beetling eyebrows.

After the Second World War, he also served on the Nuremberg Medical Tribunal, which put on trial German doctors for performing experiments of a kind he would himself later perform. For example, had the notorious Dr Josef Mengele been arrested, it’s very possible, if not probable, Dr Cameron might have had some input into his prosecution.

It’s a small world.

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