A Personal Story

When I was ten, I attended my first funeral. I did not know why I was there as the woman in the coffin was unknown to me. She was my grandmother. She had been in HRSH my entire life and no one had ever mentioned her, but as I look back, I recall Sundays when my parents would leave my brother and me with our other grandmother and “went someplace.” In those days, mental illness was not discussed. I later learned a lot about what killed my grandmother and continues to threaten some members of my family.

Huntington’s Disease (HD)*, the disease that killed my grandmother in 1954, also took Woodie Guthrie in 1961. He was confined at another Kirkbride site, Greystone Park Hospital, in New Jersey. It was demolished in the Spring of this year. There was no genetic test for Huntington’s until 1994 for did I know for sure that was what my grandmother had, but when I went to the Administration Building of the HRSH in 1995 to enquire of my grandmother’s records, I discovered they had diagnosed her with that disease early in her care. She was committed there in 1943.

Whether my family knew the frightening portent of that diagnosis (each of her children had a 50/50 chance of inheriting that flawed bit of DNA and therefore the disease, and so on down the generations) or they chose to ignore it, I will never know. Two of her three children escaped that random sorting of heritable bits. Having watched Huntington’s take my uncle and his two children, and having been the non-legal guardian of my cousins until their deaths, I can say, there is still a lot of “Kirkbridian” kindness in the current crop of caring staff who deal with the mentally fragile of all stripes.

I take great solace that there were so many caring and talented nurses, paraprofessionals, doctors, and administrators who took the Kirkbride theory into their hearts and practices.

*HD is a genetic brain disorder manifesting in uncontrollable bodily movements. It eventually robs people’s ability to walk, talk, eat, and think. The final result is a slow, ugly death. Children of parents with HD have a 50/50 chance of inheriting the disease. It usually begins to affect victims in their late 30s, depending on the number of corruptions (in HD it is a rare replication of segments) in their DNA. there is no cure or treatment. There is a genetic test now available for those at risk.