The emergency room of Charity Hospital in New Orleans resembled those of major urban public hospitals in the inner cities of our country, but was distinct in the flavors of its stories reflecting the both the age of the institution and the makeup of its citizenry. On any given night, hundreds of patients with and without family members sat or milled about in a large waiting room furnished with wooden benches, spending hours hoping to be seen by one of the staff.
One such night, a middle age man with clothes marking him as one of the dock workers waited patiently, wearing a bowler hat, quite atypical for the rest of his attire. Finally, he went to the triage nurse’s desk and politely asked, “Excuse me, ma’am…” but was brusquely cut off with the comment, “Can’t you see we’re busy? Sit down, wait your turn, and we’ll call you.” He did as instructed, politely sitting on a bench, his back to the wall, as over the course of the night the throngs of patients slowly cleared out. Finally, with only a few stragglers left, the nurse called him over and said, “So! What’s your problem?” Without saying a word, the man removed his bowler hat, showing her the ice pick imbedded in his skull pulsating to the rhythm of his heartbeat. The nurse, with a look of shock on her face, demanded, “Why didn’t you let us know your problem sooner?” The man replied, “I tried, ma’am, but you told me to sit down and wait, so I did.” Some Southerners are very polite to anyone in authority.
The next story is the story of the Ice Man. The doors at the entrance of the emergency room swing in both directions like the doors of an Old West saloon. One night while I was working, there was a huge commotion happening outside, with shouting, sirens, and flashing blue police lights. A dozen police cars pulled up, and dragged from the back of one of the cruisers the largest man I had ever seen. He must have been 6’7” or 6’8” tall, close to 350 pounds, with a torn, dirty T-shirt, a shaved head that had clearly received numerous blows recently, with blood streaming down one side of his face, and cuts on his arms. Around his neck were two nooses with poles attached, of the variety used by Animal Control to capture stray wild dogs. Four cops were trying to hang on to him, as well as the poles around his neck. The police from the Bourbon Street beat were used to managing rowdy drunks. You had to be 6’5” and 250 pounds to work in that division, so none of them were small guys, though they appeared that way next to the giant they were attempting to corral into the ER.
The story they gave was that two officers stopped the man for driving erratically. When they approached him, he threw one cop into the windshield of the car, and it wasn’t until the phalanx of backup arrived that they were able to subdue him. The Bourbon Street cops are a macho group, which I suspect is the only reason our soon to be patient was brought in alive. It would have sullied their reputation that a squad of them couldn’t handle one man, regardless of his size. The man was clearly on some drug, PCP most likely. He kept looking around with wild, blood shot eyes, bound hands and feet to a gurney with leather hard restraints, until the Thorazine we injected into his system started take effect. The psych resident on call came down to assess the man. Turns out he was known to the psych department with prior history of paranoid behavior who would act out whenever he ran out or forgot to take the medications his psych team prescribed for him. The woman resident told the cops they could leave, as she now had things under control, because when the man would wake up, the sight of police uniforms was likely to set him off again.
The police looked dubiously at her, commenting, “You sure you know what you’re doing doc? If this guy gets loose, he’ll take this place apart, and it will be a while before we can get back here again.” She reassured them that things were now fine, the man was restrained and sedated, and they could leave him to her. Shaking their heads, muttering to themselves, the police left.
About an hour later, our man on the gurney woke up, looking around disoriented, then down at his hands bound by the hard restraints to the gurney. He sat up, and with his neck veins bulging out, let out a roar, as he simultaneously broke the leather restraints, snapping them in half. His feet still bound, he barricaded himself into the corner exam room, and proceeded to try and free his legs by smashing the gurney against the walls. Hospital security officers, having witnessed the whole show from his arrival until now, decided that this was a good time for them to go on break. Meanwhile, the intern placed a frantic call to bring back the cops, who showed up in force in about five minutes. The strange thing was that they just stood milling around outside of the exam room of the psychotic patient. I finally asked one of them, “Aren’t you going in after this guy?” He smiled and said, “Not just yet. We’re waiting for the Ice Man!” “The Ice Man?” I queried blankly. “Just wait. You’ll see.”
A few minutes went by, then the door of the ER swung open, and in rolled this small tank of a man. He was about 5’7” tall, and about the same width. He walked forward, and I could have sworn his knuckles scraped the ground as he did so. The muscles of his body just rippled under a uniform so tight it could barely contain his form. He had a head like an artillery shell, with a face scarred by prior violence. He was pulling black leather gloves onto his fists as he lumbered forward. Meanwhile, the cops lined up on both side of the door, as they might have at a football game, and they were all clapping, chanting, “Here’s the Ice Man.”
As the Ice Man threw open the door of the exam room, the giant inside took one swing at him, which the cop sidestepped, then swung his own fist, hitting our psycho in the jaw (X-rays later showed he broke it in three places) and knocked the man out cold. He then sauntered back out, pulling the gloves off as he went. The cop I spoke to smiled, pointed at him as he went by and said, “See? That’s the Ice Man!”
The Ice Man story occurred in 1971, and is a reflection of police life of the time. Times have changed, though at least some of the machismo police culture remains today, despite the efforts of some reformers to change it. I deal with a lot of people in law enforcement, and the vast majority is decent, caring people who feel that despite doing a very hard job to the best of their ability, they get little respect from the public in general, and none from the criminals violating the laws. This forces them to look inward toward their fellow officers, rather than outward, to all of society. The tragic events and the aftermath of recent days underscore the need to rid racism from not just from law enforcement, but from our daily lives. Sadly, we have yet to come to terms with the basic conflict of how to enforce the law when dealing with individuals who either feel no need to respect the law or the police. The story of mankind has been the use of force to settle conflicts. Yet, while we have seen that might doesn’t always make right, we continue to struggle to live in a way that satisfies the viewpoint of the underdog. Until people feel that they are justly treated, and the law protects the weak as well as the strong, the conflicts will persist and escalate.