In the same vein as Robin Cook and Michael Palmer, Dr. Ilene B. Benator crafts a terrifying medical thriller that is sure to excite.
An ambitious future surgeon on his psychiatry rotation is assigned a patient who reveals to him information about an organized plot to control the population. His pursuit of the truth leads him to become a psychiatric patient in the same facility.
Dan Greenberg was a promising medical student who was derailed by Catherine–a bizarre schizophrenic patient whose delusions about patients in danger at hospitals all around Chicago were startlingly specific.
Drawn by both curiosity and compassion, Dan investigates, discovering that they were exactly where Catherine said they would be. Who are these people? Why are they in danger? Are they connected with each other?
While incarcerated, he joins forces with an unlikely ally Jake–who murdered his family during a drug-induced psychotic break, but is also a charming hacker with street smarts who creates a plan to get Dan’s life back. In his attempts to do so, he threatens to uncover a conspiracy to track and manipulate the population by a cabal of influential people who will do anything to keep their plot secret. He will learn just how far powerful people will go to stay in control, and the high price of the truth.
Schizo takes readers on a wildly unexpected journey into the what-ifs of medical science. Written by an Emergency Physician, Ilene B. Benator crafts situations that are terrifying, yet all too believable.
I have had a long time to think about my predicament. Not continuously, though, because they don’t allow me long moments of clarity. It is such a strange feeling. All of my life I’ve been pretty anal about making the right decisions. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of it, actually. Now I have no choice. No freedom.
And to think I used to stress out about stupid things like the MCAT and Gross Anatomy. Every single move I made back then was a deliberate action. As a second year medical student, I was obsessed with configuring my schedule so as to optimize my third-year medical school experience. I needed to garner stellar evaluations to obtain a choice ENT residency.
The third-year clinicals were the most important. But I had a plan, as always. Start off easy in psychiatry, learn procedures in ER, gain knowledge and confidence with peds and internal medicine, then kick ass on the surgical rotation. As someone with a college degree in both biology and psychology, I thought I was amply prepared for my first clinical rotation in psychiatry.
I was wrong.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to face at the Northwest Indiana Psychiatric Institution. No one, including myself, would ever have predicted that my perfectly planned life could have gone so far off track. And certainly, no one would have guessed I’d end up as a permanent resident of the very same forensic psychiatry unit that I studied at just one year ago. But here I sit, shut away; my cries for help unanswered. Meanwhile, those responsible for my fate roam free.
It was July first, two long years ago, when I began my initial clinical rotation on the most dangerous day of the year to come to the hospital—because it is nearly universal that all residency training programs begin their new year on that day. Essentially everyone who knew what they were doing just got promoted to do something else. And those replacing them were just winging it until they gained a little more experience.
I arrived on my first day armed with the knowledge I received from three different psychiatric texts, and a smartphone loaded with every program I could think of. I left nothing to chance. I had to succeed.
I cranked up the air in my car, as it was a typical sweltering summer day in Chicago. It’s a forty-minute drive to northwest Indiana, and I did not want to get perspiration stains on my brand-new, striped Brooks Brothers button-down shirt. The nicely pressed short white lab coat issued to me last week hung against the passenger window. No need to get any more claustrophobic than necessary with too many layers of clothes.
Thinking about that made me reflexively adjust my tie. I was still getting used to wearing one, but looking sharp and professional was the goal. I went old-school with a bright red paisley pattern—that was my first mistake of the day … as I would soon find out.
To enter the facility, you had to pass through a security checkpoint. A tall fence with barbed wire facing inward surrounded the compound. This property was a hospital, with the trappings of a prison. The campus itself seemed pretty non-threatening. A bunch of buildings scattered about on substantial well-landscaped acreage. I spent a few minutes winding around, until I came upon the building number, per the instructions in our Student Clinicals Manual.
There was a security presence at the entrance to the building as well. Though we were issued badges that we had to wear, little attention was paid to us medical students. If you looked the part and gave the appropriate story you were ushered in without even a metal detector screening. It seemed clear that the concern was not towards those entering, but on those attempting to leave.
Upon arriving, the psychiatrist in charge, Dr. Jain, gave us an introductory lesson. Dressed in a demure long navy blue skirt and plain white blouse, Dr. Jain hardly looked like the well-respected, nationally recognized psychiatrist that she was. Her facial complexion was a flawless light brown, with few signs other than a streak of gray hair to betray her age of forty-five.
“The ward,” she said with a hint of an Indian accent, “has an open common area where most of the residents are required to remain during the day. When you need to talk with one of the patients, tell one of the nurses, and they will bring the patient to an office. Do not, under any circumstances, try to get the patient yourself. Some of the other patients could misinterpret your actions. This is not to say that you are in danger here, but we try to minimize the possibility of a negative encounter.”
She continued, “I know this is your first rotation, and you are anxious to break in your new lab coats. You won’t need them here. We try to establish a rapport with our patients that cannot be achieved if we seem too imposing. Also, leave your ties at home. Especially ones with bright colors or distracting patterns on it. It can get the patients riled up, and they could use it to strangle you.”
Again, I loosened the knot on my tie. “Some of the more aggressive patients will try to interact with you in the hallway or other common areas. They will try to get you to talk with them, or to get food or cigarettes. Do not under any circumstances acquiesce to their requests. Some of these patients are very manipulative, and you have to be careful not to fall into their trap.”
“Finally, when talking with a patient, you must sit between the patient and the door to provide an easy escape route if need be. But make sure there is an unobstructed path for the patient as well. They need to feel like they are not shut in. I realize I may have caused some anxiety in some of you as a result of these admonitions. Really, this is a very safe place.”
That was her speech. Essentially, do not feed the bears, or else. Could the patients become dangerous? I tried not to think too hard about it.
Next, Dr. Jain explained that, “Each student will be randomly assigned two patients. One from the in-patient ward will be seen on Monday and Wednesday. The other, on Tuesday and Thursday, will be in the forensic ward, where the criminally insane reside. Friday is a review and lecture day. Today you will briefly be introduced to both of your patients.”
So our job was to talk with them and figure out for ourselves what their diagnosis was, find the right DSM code, and “prescribe” a treatment for them. It sounded like fun.
Our introductory tour continued with a walkthrough of the forensics unit. To get there, we meandered down multiple hallways and down a flight of stairs before encountering another security checkpoint—a cage-like metal wall made of black wrought iron that had lost its luster. A large metal door hid in the center, identified only by the stainless steel doorknob. Upon spotting Dr. Jain and her “ducklings” the security guard buzzed us in through the locked door. We were led into an entryway to the common area where the patients seemed oblivious to our arrival and discussions. Before I would have a chance to meet my first patient, we were given another short lecture—this time about the forensics unit.
“Many of the patients here,” continued Dr. Jain, “have committed grievous, heinous crimes. Obviously, anyone here has the potential to cause harm. However, look around; these folks don’t appear any different than you and I. The difference is, they have already snapped. You and I have not. If anything, I feel more secure walking around here amongst people who already broke down, than amongst the ‘sane’ people walking the streets who haven’t yet, but could at any moment.”
I scanned the room, looking closely at some of the patients, and thought of when I went clubbing with my buddies last Saturday. The zoned out expressions amongst the nearly passed out clientele, stumbling around the dance floor, were not unlike the image before me now. It was true—we were not that different.
The words flowed smoothly from Dr. Jain’s mouth. It was as if she gave this speech a thousand times before. “Contrary to your instructions at the regular psychiatric unit, you are only to meet with patients in the common areas. This is for legal as well as safety reasons.”
During her lecture, I took the opportunity to study the patients’ behavior further. While many of them had a drugged up look to them, and seemed to keep to themselves in the corner, others, however, were more alert and formed friendly groups. They talked amongst themselves much like the “normal” people on the outside.
Soon after the lecture, I was handed a dossier about my patient, Jake. It revealed that he stabbed four members of his family. I expected to meet a … well … deviant-looking person. Instead, when he approached, I was quite taken aback by how he appeared like any average guy. He could have been my brother; there was such a close resemblance between the two of us.
At twenty-five, I was three years older than he was then. Jake stood at just a few inches above my height at 5’11”, with slightly wavy, dirty blond hair that covered his ears. Mine was a little darker, straighter and tightly cropped. We both had light eyes though his were blue while mine were an olive green. He even had the same dimpled chin. His, however, had a small goatee. I liked the clean appearance of a smooth, hairless face.
Upon being introduced, Jake broke out in a big warm smile and reached out his hand. I shook it firmly, as he had a strong grip.
“So you’re my new med student?” he asked, sporting a smile.
“My name’s Dan Greenberg. I guess you get a lot of us.”
“Sure, but I don’t mind. It gives me a chance to talk to people my own age.” Jake spoke in a whiny, typical mid-western pseudo-nasal Chicago accent.
Dr. Jain interrupted, “Students, this is only for introductions. Since the first day fell on a Friday, you can resume talking on Tuesday at your regularly scheduled session.”
I told Jake, “It looks like I’ll see you Tuesday.”
“I look forward to it,” Jake said as he waved good-bye.
When it was time to leave, there was a bit of a traffic jam as a new patient was being ushered through security accompanied by three policemen. His eyes bulged as he spewed obscenities—sending a creepy tingling sensation to the back of my neck. Instead of waiting, we were led back to the main in-patient unit. Dr. Jain used her badge to access a nearby stairwell, which took us down several flights and emptied into an underground tunnel. Snaking through the maze, we found a service elevator that also required a badge to activate it. The in-patient unit, where we started, was three floors above us.
I was brought to an office, then sat and waited until my patient Catherine arrived. I was not told anything about her. It wouldn’t matter if they had. I would come to learn everything they say and do here is a lie. Through my interviews of Catherine, I would discover things I wish I never knew. If I could do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I would never have jumped down that rabbit hole. But I did, and there’s no going back.
Right now, I am in one of my few moments of clarity. This occurs three times a day, just before and just after receiving my medicines. It used to only last for a minute or two. Now I have nearly thirty lucid minutes at a time. It seems that I am habituating to the effects of the drugs, that is, with continued use the medicines are becoming less and less potent.
They tell me the medicines are to get me well. But I know the truth. They want to make sure I don’t remember. Or if I do, make it so nobody would ever believe me.
It is a window in time that gives me a chance to think. Given my predicament, this is both a blessing and a curse. I have been masking my alertness from my captors for fear they will increase my dosage, and I’ll be a vegetable again.
Today, for the first time in what has been a year since I entered this facility as a patient, they are allowing the medical students to interview me. They think it’ll be a good learning experience for the student. I’ve been a model patient thus far, so they’re giving me this opportunity.
My former patient Jake is still here. He doesn’t associate with me too much, though. I am not sure if it’s because I am so drugged, or because he doesn’t want to risk his own chances for freedom.
There is a knock on the door to my room. For all practical purposes, it is a jail cell, but it is home now for me. Peter, a large African-American male who happens to be one of the nicer orderlies, appears in the doorway.
“Dannyboy, it is time to meet your first medical student. This is a big day for you, sport.”
He motions for me to come closer, then gently grabs the front of my shirt, gives a light tug towards the doorway, then presses his hand between my shoulder blades nudging me forward in the direction of the common area. I shuffle over to an open chair to await my student.
Peter walks over to Sheri, a friend of mine from college, and escorts her to my table. I can’t believe my luck … good this time. I try not to act too excited. In fact, I show no emotion. I don’t want anybody to realize that, for the moment, I’m rational.
He makes the introduction. “Hey Danny, this is your medical student. It is important that you cooperate or else you will lose this opportunity in the future. If you act out, the session will end abruptly. Do you understand?”
During the whole introduction, I stare at the ground, and I make no indication of our previous friendship. Then I look up at Peter and nod my acknowledgment of his admonitions.
For once, I have hope. If I can tell her my story and get her to believe me, maybe I can find a way out of here and back to my life. If anyone would believe me, she would. Maybe the fates are sending me some good fortune for a change.
While it appears as though I am staring aimlessly, I am actually plotting my next move. It’ll be pretty easy to surreptitiously scribble a note on a piece of paper. So I decide to write her a note and slip it to her the next time we meet. And if she’s willing, I’ll tell her the whole bizarre, pathetic story. Her father’s a well-connected businessman. If she believes me, maybe he’d help me. I know it’s a long shot, but it’s the only chance I’ve got.
Sheri sits down on the one-piece, scooped-bottom plastic chair, with slightly rickety metal legs that click as her weight shifts. I glance up at her facial expression, and her raised eyebrows and occasional biting of her lower lip make it obvious to me that she has mixed emotions about seeing me here. She alternates between surprise and pity. Sheri holds the fact sheet that I, myself, was given a few years ago that told me all about my med student Jake.
Gently placing the papers on the table, she asks me, “Danny is that you?”
I want to answer her so bad. I want to tell her everything. I simply rock back and forth in silence. I have no choice. They are watching me closely.
“I guess you’re too out of it; you don’t remember me.”
At that moment, I stare right into her eyes. My gaze lingers for a few seconds and then proceeds to the chipped corner of the floor tile.
She appears confused. I think she gets it, that I have some level of recognition of her.
“I’ve gotta go. But I’ll see you in a few days. Danny, it really is good to see you again.”
When Sheri leaves, I notice with my peripheral vision her turning around to take one last look at me. She must think I look pitiful. I don’t blame her.
A big burly orderly named Hal stands in the back and shouts, “Everybody, ‘play time’ with the students is over.” He yells, “IIIIIIt’s medicine time!”
Hal is one of those elementary school bullies who grew up to get paid to do what he loves best. What he lacks in brains he makes up for in brawn, using his one asset to obtain sadistic pleasure in screwing with the less fortunate.
He orders, “Everybody line up for the best pharmaceuticals on the market.”
Nobody makes much of a move toward him.
“Okay, that was me trying to be nice. Now, the last person to receive their medicines loses today’s play time.”
Suddenly patients rush to get their medicines, like he’s the ice cream man. I, however, don’t run. I keep up the clueless act by remaining seated. This does not make Hal happy.
“Danny, you are the miserably unhappy recipient of a loss of play privileges today. Like it matters anyway. I could take anything away, and you wouldn’t notice, would ya, Danny?”
He shoves a cup full of pills in my face.
“Open your mouth!”
God, I hate this. I hate him. Even more than him, I hate those pills that make me into a blubbering idiot. But if I don’t play by the rules, I’ll lose my chance with Sheri. I comply with Hal’s order, and he happily pours all the pills into my mouth. Before I have a chance to resist, he pours some water into my mouth to wash them down. After I swallow, he checks to make sure there’s none hidden in my mouth.
“Now back to your room,” he orders.
This time, I respond quickly as I need some time alone to think about the note I will write to Sheri. I’ve only got fifteen minutes before the meds kick in.
When no one is looking, I remove the crayon and napkin that I hid in my shirtsleeve and place it inside a hole I made in the mattress. I will write this tomorrow when I have more time.
Sometimes while we’re in our delirious sleep, they come into our rooms and check us for contraband material. I can’t be too careful. After all, I am not being paranoid. They really are out to get me.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
A board-certified Emergency Physician, Ilene B. Benator practices in the southeast and wrote the screenplay adaptation for Schizo, which won a Certificate of Merit in the Los Angeles Cinema Festival of Hollywood Screenwriting Competition, and was finalist in two other screenwriting contests. Also, she is Associate Producer, “Flesh” (2016) Cruell World Productions; Morningstar Productions. After growing up in New York and leaving to attend Emory University for undergrad with a degree in psychology, she then went to medical school in Chicago, and returned to Atlanta to do her training; where she now resides. When not working or being soccer mom to her two wonderful kids, plus two cats and one dog, she enjoys architectural photography, camping, skiing, and takes hikes in the mountains with her husband and black fluffy dog Daisy.