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Behind Blue Eyes | A life lesson from a patient

Author, Joann Spears
Behind Blue Eyes playing on the radio reminded me of the mute, azure-eyed patient who taught me a big life lesson.

He was a low-maintenance patient on the chronic psychiatric ward where I worked per diem. I worked with him for probably three years before I learned that his muteness was selective. Long-time staff on the floor remembered him speaking – weird delusional Hitler stuff – long, long ago, but no one had heard him speak in many years and no one went out of their way to get him to talk again.

The windows on the dorm of that ward were painted part-way open. On windy winter nights, it was freezing back there. It took a lot of legwork and major sweet-talking skills to scare up the extra blankets necessary on those winter nights; those cotton honeycomb blankets had to be piled up pretty high to be even close to warm enough.

The men who lived on that ward, most of them for years if not decades, were creatures void of choice, and I felt that void keenly. There wasn’t much I could offer them in the way of choice, but there was something. It was those blankets.

Which blanket do you want-the white one? The beige one? The blue one?

My blue-eyed patient would never answer the question, not even with a gesture, so I always picked for him. “The blue blanket for you, of course, I would tell him, “because it matches your eyes.”

One night, I was working on charts at the nurses’ station when I felt eyes bearing down on me. Looking up, I found the patient with the blue eyes looking down at me. I asked him what he wanted, a rhetorical question with no answer expected.

He took a deep breath, and struggled like he was pulling something up from the bottom of his toes. Finally, he was able to spit it out.

“I’d like a blue blanket, please.”

It was the first, last, and only thing I ever heard the man say.

That man’s name was Tommy. No kidding. Tommy, can you hear me? I’m glad I heard you. You taught me never to underestimate the power of choice.

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