The Zombie Ward: 'Depressed' Women Were Put To Sleep For Months In An NHS Hospital Room
The Zombie Ward: The chilling story of how 'depressed' women were put to sleep for month...
There are many horrors that Elizabeth Reed recalls from her time at London’s Royal Waterloo Hospital, but one in particular lingers in her mind. She describes a small, windowless room at the top of the red-brick Edwardian building, just lit by a night lamp on a nurse’s desk.
Six beds are jammed together. The deep breathing of women in a drug-induced sleep. The fetid stench of unwashed bodies.
‘It was like being buried alive,’ she says. ‘I was lying there in the dark, hour after hour, and couldn’t move. I wasn’t aware of my body, just my head in this darkness. You could hear people moving around and other people breathing and moaning.’
While Elizabeth is one of only a handful of women prepared to speak out, her story is not unique. Up to 500 women, suffering from conditions such as postnatal depression and anorexia, passed through the Royal Waterloo’s infamous Ward 5 before it shut 40 years ago.
Heavily drugged and subjected to horrendous levels of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and even lobotomies, the unluckiest were taken to the 'Narcosis Room', where they were put to sleep for weeks at a time.
‘We were not drooling maniacs, but if you’ve been put in a sleep room, then your memories are not going to be clear. I lost huge chunk of my past.’
Officially, the Department of Health says it no longer has records of Sargant’s work at the Royal Waterloo, affiliated to London’s St Thomas’s Hospital. However, Elizabeth has a copy of her referral letter from January 1973, stamped with the ominous words: ‘Admit to Ward 5.’ Notes reveal she was given a ‘course of narcosis’.
She had been diagnosed with ‘obsessional neurosis’ and, by her own admission, was very ill — depression compounded by a difficult childhood.
‘But many other women I have spoken to say they were suffering from milder forms of depression and anxiety,’ she says. ‘The treatment was completely out of proportion.’
She was admitted to the Royal Waterloo in spring 1973 when she was 22 and engaged to be married. After arriving on the 22-bed Ward 5, she was sedated and underwent ECT — sometimes every other day.
‘I can remember the sound of the ECT machine being wheeled down the corridor and it being switched on and off in other rooms,’ she says.
‘It was so frightening. First of all, they injected you and you had an awful feeling of falling backwards into yourself. After ECT, you didn’t know who you were.’
Eventually, Elizabeth was moved into the Narcosis Room beside Ward 5 and put into a drug-induced sleep.
Women there were occasionally woken to be taken to the toilet or to be fed. ‘We were like zombies,’ says Elizabeth. ‘I couldn’t walk. I had to be lifted. Afterwards, they put you back to sleep again.