Devotion to the mentally ill

Volunteers: For 50 years, the Golden Rule Guild for Mental Aid has worked to make life better for patients at Maryland's state hospitals.

April 26, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Once a month, Regina and Sherman Steinberg load boxes of Tasty Kakes and Dunkin' Sticks into their daughter's minivan and drive through Spring Grove Hospital Center to the door of Red Brick Cottage 3 -- a home of trapped minds they will unlock with their own key.

Inside wait Dwayne, a cherubic man given to repetition, and Gregory, whose cogent conversation gives way to rambling discussions of mass conspiracy, and a woman whose name may or may not be Lois, who has been at Spring Grove so long that the Steinbergs cannot remember just how long it has been.

Regina Steinberg has been making this journey for a half-century as a member of the Golden Rule Guild for Mental Aid, a Northwest Baltimore group that next month will celebrate its 50th anniversary of helping the mentally ill.

The guild, begun as a gathering of concerned young women, has quietly become one of the most enduring volunteer presences in Maryland's state mental hospitals.

Its members have been witness to a period of monumental change in the treatment of the mentally ill -- from the era of dungeonlike institutions where patients were locked away and forgotten, to the release of thousands of patients across the country thanks to anti-psychotic drugs.

"I think they provide a socialization link to the community that wouldn't be made any other way," Fred Hitchcock, director of volunteer services for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said of the guild. "They have made long-lasting friendships, because they're not part of the medical team, they're not part of the social work. They're the community saying, `We miss you.' "

But there are fewer and fewer patients for the guild to visit. The hospitals they serve -- Spring Grove in Catonsville and Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville -- hold a fraction of the population they once did, with Spring Grove's population dwindling to about 400.

State legislators have ordered the drafting of a plan by summer to shift more patients into residential treatment programs or close one or more of Maryland's eight psychiatric hospitals.

Like the hospitals it serves, some members of the guild worry that their group could become a thing of the past. The guild's oldest member is 91; the youngest, in her early 50s. It has 35 members, down from a high of 150.

`Worst story ever told'

The guild was born with the publication in 1949 of "Maryland's Shame," a series of articles in The Sun described as "the worst story ever told" by the newspaper. It featured pictures of rows of women patients in padlocked chairs, where they stayed all day because there were not enough attendants to handle them. It showed "idiot" children sleeping two to a bed; men lying nude in their own filth.

Rose Golden, a young registered nurse in Northwest Baltimore, had a relative at Spring Grove at the time. She knew about the conditions there -- and she decided it was time to do something. So she gathered together women like her -- relatives, friends, many of them housewives with small children who knew nothing about mental illness.

A dozen women met in 1949 -- eight of whom are still members. "It grew like Topsy," says Golden, now 84.

The name was chosen not for the guild's founder, but for the way its members hoped to treat the patients they met.

Norma Moritz, 73, the group's president, was 22 when she joined. "I hadn't done anything like that before," she says.

And she didn't quite know what she was getting into until she saw the first patients -- catatonic, disheveled and dirty. She helped the other women pass out coffee and sweets, unsure that any of the patients really understood what was happening, either.

Then came the breakthrough moment. "They lined the corridor and applauded us," Moritz remembers. "And then [attendants] locked the doors behind us."

Roslyn Leiter, 79, of Mount Washington, another original member, remembers visiting a group of chronic patients at Spring Grove during the 1960s.

`Couldn't say anything'

She sat next to a woman so lost in her own world that when Leiter put something in her lap, it immediately fell off. But several visits later, Leiter said, "She came up to me and said, `I knew you were here. I just couldn't say anything.' "

They raised money for the patients with spaghetti dinners, ad books, bake sales and bingo game after bingo game. They held "treats" -- evenings of coffee and bingo -- for patients. Once a year they'd hold donor appreciation dinners with elaborate musical productions.

The first gifts were small but important to the patients: cigarettes, cosmetics, toothpaste. The women in the group couldn't believe that the patients had no mirrors, no way to see themselves to put on a bit of rouge. Glass was not allowed. The guild donated metal mirrors.

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