On Call at the Haunted Hospital*
“Sometimes, late at night, you can still hear the moans of the poor souls who died tortured deaths in the old ICU…”
Dr. Gabaldi was a well-liked teaching attending who enjoyed entertaining us with his ghost stories. It wasn’t hard to come up with a tale or two about a place that had been dubbed “The Haunted Hospital” by the residents ahead of us. The century-old Catholic community hospital served an economically depressed and aesthetically depressing industrial-era town. It seemed an unlikely training outpost for Yale/ New Haven Hospital-based residents, but for better or for worse, it’s where multiple successive classes of internal medicine trainees completed about half of their clinical rotations.
“…and if you don’t believe me, ask some of our longtime employees. There are more than a few who won’t set foot on the fourth floor of the original building, no matter what.”
It’s the main job of a brand-new intern to act tough, so we all laughed off Dr. Gabaldi’s tales and warnings. But as residency wore on, many of us were able to tell our own stories.
Religious paintings and icons were displayed throughout the hospital, a reminder that for many years, the nuns from the adjacent convent provided much of the care. The Christian artwork was no doubt intended to reassure the sick and suffering, an ever-present reminder of the ubiquity and constancy of faith. Indeed, there was a priest on-site and available to deliver last rites on immediate notice. (According to rumor, the hospital priests had been called to perform several exorcisms over the years, though no one in any official capacity would ever confirm this.)
Our call room was located in a 1960’s-era wing where was no overnight patient care, on a floor that was scheduled to be renovated at some unknown future time. After hours, no staff except us walked down the hall of vacated offices, occupied only by broken-down furniture, discarded books and forgotten papers.
And Jesus. There was a life-sized wooden statue of Jesus in supplicant posture set in the perpetually dim hallway near the call room. He was supposed to appear as though beseeching his Heavenly Father, but the unfortunate effect was of his eyes rolling back into his head with his arms outstretched and ready to grab at unsuspecting passersby. I cannot tell you how many times I literally sprinted past that thing, praying.
One time on Dr. Gabaldi rounds, our chief resident was egged on to tell his own story. He was a jocular, confident guy, red-headed and freckly, cool as a cucumber in an emergency. Somewhat reluctantly, he 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 residents from other services might be looking for a place to sleep, he got up and opened the door, prepared to send whoever it was on their way, amiably.
No one was there. Beyond exhausted, 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 tried to ignore it.
The knocking persisted. He turned away and covered his ears. Now he figured it was a practical joke, and was determined to sleep anyways. He’d deal with them later. But the knocking persisted.
Until it stopped, and the door burst open. He jumped up and flipped on the light, expecting to see giggling prankster colleagues. He was ready to lose his temper.
No one was there.
He said that he grabbed his coat, pager, and shoes, and ran in his socks all the way down to the emergency room, which was always well-lit and busy. He swore he would never sleep in that hospital again.
But what do you do on overnight shifts? We asked.
He shrugged. “Look, it’s inpatient medicine. There’s always work to do, and always people around working. I plant myself in the nurses’ station where’s there’s light and activity, and use the time to stay ahead of things.” We nodded at his response like it made perfect sense, but I remember thinking, This guy’s definitely not okay.
Everyone had stories. People described how a room would suddenly become freezing cold, without anyone having touched 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 man with a longstanding chronic illness. His family had disowned him, and he had passed away on the night shift, alone.
I had been called to pronounce him dead, and as I sat at the nurses’ station writing out 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 just died?”
There was some joking around: “Ooooh, he’s calling to complain about the care!”
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.*** Nothing 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 amused. “It’s just a stuck call bell. Some wiring thing.”
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 basically a box with a button on it hardwired to the wall. It looked fine.
Still, it kept ringing.
Everyone kind of looked at each other and shrugged. “Might as well open the window,” someone suggested. There were some anxious laughter, 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 truly have been some 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 down in the emergency room all the way up 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 around three in the morning, and I was probably delusional. I glanced back, and there was nothing, of course. Regardless, I started to run up the stairs.
That’s when the lights went out.
This was a completely closed stairwell accessible only through heavy fire doors. There was no light, not even an emergency exit sign or a window to allow street light in or anything. I could not see my hand in front of my face. Of course, I tripped and fell forward. This did not stop me. I bear-crawled up that last flight and felt my way along the wall to the door and pulled it open and stumbled out into the hallway of a patient floor.
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. With very sore shins.
I never tried to sleep another night in that hospital. I planted myself in the nurses’ station where there was light and activity, and used the time to stay ahead of things…
*A shorter version of this post was originally published on October 27, 2015.
**This is not the attending’s real name.
***This was not the nurse’s real name.