I've been asked about my research for Secrets of the Asylum! So, here is my story:
The first time I visited Western State Hospital was when I was a teenager. I forgot about that until I started to write this article. I sang for about 20 years with a gospel group called NewGrace. I started singing at age 12 or 13.
I don't know that I knew I was going to a mental hospital to sing one summer day...and all I can remember really is that this woman kept requesting we sing Jingle Bells. I didn't know what to do. As a teen, I wasn't sure why the staff in the rec hall just acted like her outburst was normal. I think we finally muddled through a weird unpracticed Christmas song. The rec hall is located right behind the hospital. Also, I believe that one of the people I saw on staff that day was an employee named John White. I was impressed at how kind he was to the patients.
The picture below of me and my mother is of us at a party for former employees int he same rec hall.
My mother began working at Western State Hospital as a RN in 1991. In 1995, I was a stay at home mother. I decided I wanted to buy some new furniture and was hired to work as a nurse aide at WSH. I planned to stay for six months....
At that time, nurse aide's were hired by the state, now the aide's begin working through contract companies.
I don't think I knew what to expect. The morning I pulled up to the facility, it was overwhelming. It's like there's a story waiting to be sought out...the historical mysteries taunted me from the first moment. When I was hired, I met with Jim Hayes from HR and was handed over to Susan Stratton for training. Featured to the right is a picture from 10/2013 of me with those two. It's been a lot of years....Jim is still at WSH. They both were kind to me.
On my first day on a ward, I made a plan of escape I'll tell you about in a moment. One of the patients was convinced I was the woman who stole her husband from her. I got the cussing of my life. I was young and back then; I cried easily when someone raised their voice to me. Let me tell you something...working at WSH cured me of wearing my feelings on my sleeve. I can still be cussed and not even blink or get mad. I've been called names I wouldn't type, and then required to treat the offender with kindness. Truthfully, I believe that this training was preparing me for the future. I have been told that I never hold things against people. I attribute that to WSH and to the fact the Bible says you have to forgive in order to be forgiven.
On that first day when the woman was embarrassing me as she accused me of stealing her husband, I made that plan. It involved retrieving my time card and turning in my keys. I was going to run out of there and speed down the highway and fly northbound back on the Pennyrile Parkway.
I don't remember the name of the nurse who took me aside that day...may have been Stacie, but I think I was on ward 582. The RN used the situation to teach me about how to deal with the accusations. And...she hid me in the back room for awhile because just the appearance of my face set the woman off. I'm so thanIkful for the nurse. When I came back the next day, the patient never blinked when she looked at me and I'm so glad I stayed.
When asked about things people assume concerning the famous Hopkinsville hospital, I have to say that for some reason, people assume that the patients are all wild or unintelligent. Let me tell you, I met a lot of patients way smarter than me. Some of the tragedies that I read about in the charts still make me sad. Over the years, I will think of a patient and pray for them. Perhaps the reason I wrote about Jane the way I did was because I wanted to put highlight an intelligent caring person to challenge the false idea of what a person with mental health challenges is like.
When I first started WSH, there was an assistant director of nursing named, Shirley Johnson. Shirley had worked at WSH for 38 years before she retired. She has some pretty great stories! When she first started working at the hospital, they had 2000 patients. I suppose that one thing that was always incredible to me was the number of people who dedicated the majority of their lives to serve the mentally ill. Wow is all I still can say. There is a photo above taken 10/13 with Shirley.
At the end of my six months as a nurse aide, the state stopped hiring full time patient aides and a contract company called Marriott began hiring what they called, PSA's. Most people today don't know what the PSA stands for, but since I was there at the beginning, I can tell you it means, Patient Support Associate. I was hired as a supervisor with Marriott and worked my way up within five years to a General Manager. I have to give a special shout out to Dennie Cook who took a chance hiring me. I became a pretty nifty leader over my life because of that. As far as why I was hired, I had mad computer skills when no one else really did and God blessed me. I had also spent six months paying a lot of attention to how the facility operated, and I believe this helped me as well.
The black/white photo here is of me and my team. I suppose this was 1999/2000. I left the hospital in 2000 and returned to be a stay at home mom and write. I am amazed that there are still employees at WSH and WSNF that I hired. That makes me feel like I did a good job choosing. My first fiction trilogy focused on working on public environments and keeping integrity. You can read those books and learn how to deal with difficult people. Many of the lessons I learned the hard way are embedded in my first three books. They are a product of five years at WSH, although they are also fiction.
When I got the idea to mingle my love for history and fiction, I decided to call the series, The Kentucky Treasure Series. The first historical place that impacted me was when I was 13. I wrote the novel, A Mile Below Paradise, Lost City of Airdrie, as the first book in the series. That book was about a lost city whose ruins still waste away in Muhlenberg County.
I always knew I would do one on the history of Western State Hospital as the second novel in the series.
I wrote it and then just stored the draft away. For some reason, I just thought it wasn't any good.
I had pretty good success with two history books I'd written and with Airdrie. Intimidation and a big dose of chicken struck me pretty quickly so I tucked away the manuscript. It was all written and had the title. I only had like ten pages or so left because I didn't know how to end it.
My mother resigned from WSH several years before I left. She is a missionary in Honduras.
She called me from Central America a couple years ago and basically ordered me to get the book out and finish polishing it. I'm now glad that I did. I brought it out and had a couple people look at it and was amazed that they liked it. I'm smiling right now thinking about that.
The novel is fiction as far as names and situations, but it was inspired by my time at WSH. Any similarity to real people is a coincidence except for a housekeeper named Rosemary. She passed away and I wanted to honor her by naming a housekeeping character after her.
One of the stresses I always felt while working at WSH was trying to balance patient care with the demands of regulatory agencies, budgets, etc. I try to address that a little bit in the novel. I'm not trying to be political, but there has to be some common ground where those who actually are taking care of patients get a voice.
(There. My preaching is over concerning that.)
I have been asked about some of the things that fascinate me about the hospital and people who read my book ask me if what I wrote about the Civil War and the tunnel is true.
All of the historical parts are true.
So many things fascinate me about the property, including the size of the front columns. I purposely took a picture of me trying to hug a column so that the reader of my novel could see how big they are. They don't look that big from the road view, I don't think. This picture here is featured by the bar-code on that back of my novel. I really love the picture of the hospital at night. Unfortunately, some of these are pictures of pictures. Of course, the barn hasn't been in "farm" use for many years, but isn't it cool? The tunnel from the hospital runs to this barn.
When I finally got the courage to polish the book, I called the Christian County/Hopkinsville noted historian, William Turner, and asked him if he would mind looking over my manuscript for historical accuracy. I was thrilled when he readily said that he would. When I got the call from him that he doesn't usually read fiction, but thoroughly enjoyed my book, I was elated. And, the final confidence I needed to let the book go to the public came to me. Thank you, Mr. Turner!