A Cigarette

The mental health team meets us outside. “We should wait for the police,” the clinician says. “She’s a big woman. When we went back up there she had a knife near her that wasn’t there the first time we were up with her. She’s very anxious today. When she’s off her meds, she can be volatile. I’ve seen her tear a door off its hinges.”

“Okay,” I say. “We’ll wait for the PD.”

When the first officer arrives, she repeats the story to him. He calls for backup.

Once backup arrives, we walk up the three flights of outdoors stairs and then force the door open because she will not come to it. Inside we find a completely bare apartment. I am always surprised when I walk into what is actually a fairly common occurrence — a psychiatric patient living in an empty apartment. In the kitchen there is a bare table with no chair and in the living room, there is no furniture, except the single folding chair in which the woman sits facing the window sill, smoking a cigarette. She wears a dirty flowered robe and slippers. She is about two hundred and ninety pounds and built solid like a rhinoceros. When the officer starts talking to her, she turns her head around slowly and says, “Don’t you be talking to me in my house. I don’t give a good god damned about any of you, so for all I care, you can all go ahead and kiss my ass. I ain’t getting up, and I ain’t going anywhere.” She goes back to looking out the window and slowly smoking her cigarette

One at a time we try to talk to her, but she just gets more agitated. When it is my turn, I say in a soft monotone, “We’re just to give you a nice easy ride down to the hospital where you can get something to eat and talk with a doctor and nice nurse about all that’s going on.” She turns full on me, and even though I am several feet away, I can feel hot breath coming out of her flaring nostrils. I just let her rant, and whenever she stops to catch her breath, I start talking again in a real quiet, slow voice. It doesn’t get me far, but at least it wears her down some.

Our efforts to talk her into going having failed, the lead cop and I discuss various game plans. He wants us to get restraints. I offer chemical as an alternative, but suggest we just try to get her to walk first. They stand her up and she starts yelling, but once they cuff her she calms down. We walk down the stairs with her, and she yells again at the top of her voice about what motherfuckers we are and how the world is corrupt. “You think you can just go in and take a woman out of her house, you all a bunch of god damned honkey ass motherfuckers! I have my mind set to take you all out, and I will leave nothing, nothing in my wake. Do you hear me? I said do you hear me! Make no mistake. You all can kiss my black ass cause I’m going to take you all down, treating a poor black woman like this. You should be ashamed of your punk asses, motherfuckers!”

When we get her down on the stretcher, she says, “My wrists hurt.” I start talking soft to her again, “I’m sorry they hurt. I’ll ask the officers to take them off if you agree to not fight us.” I nod to my preceptee who is probably about six-four and close to three hundred pounds himself. “The two of us will ride in the back with you. We’ll just take a nice easy ride to the hospital, where you can talk to a doctor. You don’t even have to say anything to us.” She seems to be listening. “And we’ll let you have a cigarette outside the hospital before we go in if don’t fight us.”

“Okay,” she says.

The cops seem a little dubious. “You’re going to have to ride with her.” I nod at my partner. “We can handle her.” They look at the two of us, and they have to admit, she’s big, but the two of us are not likely to be easily handled even by an enraged rhino, and I do have the Haldol and Ativan at the ready. “It’s your choice.”

“She’ll be good,” I say. “We’ll let her have a smoke.”

“You best not be tricking me,” the woman says.

“We’ll get you a smoke.”

They uncuff her and she is quiet on the way in. She even lets us take her pulse and blood pressure. While we are still in the ambulance, I have a vision of us pulling her out on the stretcher and letting her smoke while still on the stretcher, and a newspaper reporter taking a picture of us “ambulance attendants” standing around letting our patient have a cigarette, and what a storm of controversy it might cause. When we get to the hospital, I ask her is she wants to walk in or go in on the stretcher. “I’ll walk,” she says. We’re supposed to keep everyone on the stretcher and while there is no policy about not letting them smoke, I think that is only because no probably imagined crews would let their patients smoke.

We have her step out of the back of the ambulance, and so she is standing when he give her the cigarette. If a photographer were there, it wouldn’t be apparent that she is our patient. She looks like your typical weary two hundred and ninety pound late fifty year old lady in a dirty flowered robe and slippers, smoking a cigarette on a cold grey day. And that’s good, because if she were on the stretcher people seeing a photo in a newspaper might not understand the power of a cigarette. It often works better than brute force, better than pepper spray, handcuffs, Haldol and Ativan. It’s a simple acknowledgement that a person is having a tough day and needs a break, a chance to have a smoke and collect yourself before heading on into another tough day.

In the ER, she says she has to use the bathroom. The nurse tells her she has to pee into a cup.

“I’m going to need a bigger cup,” she says. “And why can’t I just go in the bathroom?”

The nurse says all females have to pee into a cup to see if they are pregnant.

“I ain’t pregnant,” she says.

“We require this of all females,” the nurse said.

“You’re wasting a cup on me.”

Still she takes the cup and shaking her head, waddles over toward the bathroom.

(I first posted this ten years ago.)

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