“Sometimes, late at night, you can still hear the screams of the poor souls who died a torturous death in the old ICU…”

During our four years of Med/Peds training, we rotated on the medicine floors at a small religious hospital. One of our most well-liked residency teaching attendings thoroughly enjoyed telling ghost stories. It wasn’t difficult to come up with a tale or two about a place that had been dubbed “The Haunted Hospital” by the residents ahead of us. Almost everyone who worked there had had some odd experience, and stories abound. There was more than one longtime employee who would not venture onto a certain floor of the century-old original building after dark, for exactly the reason that our attending was describing.

Vintage Postcard St Mary's Hospital
This is a vintage postcard of the original hospital, which was built in the early 1900’s.

It’s the main job of a brand-new intern to act tough, so we all laughed off the tales and warnings. But as residency wore on, more of us had unexplained, or even frightening experiences while on call.

The resident’s overnight call room was located in an older building where was no overnight patient care, and so after business hours, it was dead quiet. Religious paintings and icons were scattered throughout the entire hospital, a reminder that for many years, there was an attached convent, and the nuns provided the care. There was a life-sized wooden statue of Jesus set in the perpetually dim hallway near the call room. The Christian artwork was no doubt intended to reassure the sick and suffering, but I cannot tell you how many times I literally sprinted past that Jesus statue, eyes averted, praying: That thing better not move.

Our chief resident, who was by all accounts a jocular, confident guy, described that one night, he had tried to catch a few hours’ sleep in the call room. He closed the door, and collapsed on the bed. He was just drifting off when he heard a light knocking at the door. Knowing that sometimes other residents need beds, he got up and opened the door. No one was there. He shrugged it off, and lay down. Again the light knocking, and again he got up. No one was there. He decided it must just be the pipes, and, determined to ignore it, lay down.

The knocking persisted. It got louder, and louder. He turned away and covered his ears.

Suddenly, the door burst open.

No one was there.

He grabbed his pager and shoes and ran all the way down to the emergency room, which was always well-lit and busy. He never tried to sleep in the hospital again; instead, he would plant himself where there were people, and do work, all night.

Many of the stories described how a room would suddenly become freezing cold, without anyone touching the thermostat. Or the elevator would suddenly stop, and the lights would flicker. Or call bells would ring, from empty rooms. All of these could easily be explained by the antique infrastructure of the place. Old vents, faulty electrical wiring, that sort of thing.

But sometimes these coincidences made you think. I took care of one patient, a troubled young man, hooked on heroin. He had died in the night, complications of his addiction. He had died alone, no family by his side.*

I pronounced him dead, and as I sat at the nurses’ station writing the death certificate, the call bell rang.

“That’s odd, ” said the clerk. “It’s from thirty-two. Isn’t that the room where the guy died?”

There was some joking around: “Ooooh, he’s calling to complain about the care!”

“They want their pillows fluffed, even in death!”

“Creeepy!”

A nurse went down to the room and fussed with the call bell. I remember that it was a male nurse, Mark, the one who was often assigned to physically challenging or even dangerous patients.** Not much flustered him.

“I think it was just tangled up a bit. It shouldn’t ring again.”

A few minutes later, it rang.

One older (or I should say, more experienced) nurse commented matter-of-factly, barely looking up from her charting:

“You need to open the window.”

There was another round of joking: “Right, to let the soul out!”

“He’ll never leave until you open the window, Mark, get to it!”

But Mark was not really amused, and ignored this. “It’s just a stuck call bell. Some wiring thing. Ignore it.”

But the bell kept ringing. A few of us wandered down the hall to check out the situation. The deceased patient lay still under his white sheet, awaiting the orderly who would take him down to the morgue. We checked the call bell, which was  just that analog TV remote thing with a button on it to press for the nurse. It looked fine.

Still, it rang.

Everyone kind of looked at each other and shrugged. “Might as well open the window,” someone suggested. There were some anxious giggles, but no one opposed the motion.

The window didn’t open very easily. Finally, between a stepladder and few staff, we got the window open from the top.

The bell stopped ringing.

But the most frightening experience I had could really have been just a wiring thing. I’ll never know.

I was on call, of course. It was late in residency, and most of the Haunted Hospital stories had gotten kind of old. Honestly, as scaredy-cat as I am, I was so exhausted most nights that I could have slept in a graveyard.

If you know me, you know that I avoid elevators, and I especially avoided the elevators at that hospital. They were old, and quite frankly, probably dangerous; not because of ghosts, but because they were so antiquated.

So I was in the stairwell, trudging from an admission in the emergency room to the call room. I was reviewing the case in my head, making mental notes of things that needed to be done.

I thought I heard a footfall behind me, like, a shuffling. It was probably three in the morning, and I was so fried, I was probably delusional. I glanced back, and there was nothing, of course. I started to run up the stairs, regardless.

And then the lights went out.

This was a completely closed stairwell with fire doors. There was not one light, not an emergency exit sign or a window to allow street light or anything. I could not see my hand in front of my face. And I was running, so when it went black, I tripped and fell. This did not stop me. I bear-crawled up that last flight and felt my way along the wall to a door and pulled it open and stumbled out into the hallway…

The lights were not out anywhere else. The nurses’ station was humming quietly, people charting, computers clicking. Meantime, I was in a bona-fide panic.

I don’t think I ever tried to sleep another night in that hospital; I would plant myself in a well-lit place where there were people, and do work…

 

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These stories are all real. I was inspired to write about these old experiences after reading Victo Dolores’ piece titled Lucille on their blog Behind The White Coat Beats A Human Heart. Check it out!

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*This is not the patient’s real medical history. Close, but not quite.

**It was a male nurse, but this was not his real name.