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June 4, 2013 by Bob Nikkel, MSW

The Inspiration of Dr. Dean Brooks

The passage of Dr. Dean K. Brooks this past week, just six weeks before his 97th birthday, didn’t catch those of us who knew him and loved him—and you couldn’t know him and not fall in love with him—off guard. He fell about two weeks before he died and he told me, “Bob, I’m not going to make it.” He had reason to know about death. Several times, he talked with me and others about his “NDEs”—near death experiences, in which he realized he was dying and entered a beautiful room with blue flowers all around.  Each time, a caring nurse lightly touched his chest and told him he would be alright.  But this time it didn’t happen that way and I think he was ready.

In these and in every story I heard from him, it was the relationship, the touches of those around us, that make all the difference.  Relationships have healing power.  To be sure, it wasn’t just relationships in some generic sense, but respectful, authentic touches of real people to real people.  His never-ending mantra during and after his 27 years as Superintendent of the Oregon State Hospital was, “It’s all about the patients.”  We can quibble about his use of the term “patient” and the assumption that as an MD, he was a traditional medical model advocate.  He never, that I know of, thought of himself as a social worker or was enamored of the fact that he was a doctor.  But honest respect made all the difference.  He knew that any institution, whether it was a state hospital or a prison or a nursing home or even a church, can be hierarchical and authoritarian.  That’s really what “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was all about—he told me this many many times.

Because of the high risk of any state hospital—even his—to be a “total institution”, he told me to remember the words of John Stuart Mill:  “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”  Never mind that this quote may be misattributed to Mill, the message is the same.  Dean made sure he never forgot it in administering his state hospital.  One of his first actions as Superintendent in 1955 was to form a “Superintendent’s Council” made up of only patients so he could hear their concerns without other staff around.  He learned in one of the early meetings that patients on a particular ward were being given hot coffee each morning in paper cups.  He was incensed.  Relationships didn’t always have to be gentle touches and he went to the ward the next morning, filled a paper cup with very hot water, carefully held it by the rim and walked over to the head nurse.  He held it out and offered it to her and she took it.  The pain “hurt like hell” is what I remember him saying and the nurse dropped the scalding cup and never did it again.

I was fortunate to spend hours with Dean (as he was known to everyone who loved him) and listened to story after story after story.  Right up to the end, he was telling stories that even his family had never heard.  I won’t try to tell more of them here, but some of his noteworthy stories were about guests and some staff that he brought to the hospital.   At one time or another he knew the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, and brought to Oregon State Hospital Thomas Szaz, Aldous Huxley, Dr. Maxwell Jones, and of course, Ken Kesey.  I’m trying to imagine any other state hospital medical director who would bring the father of anti-psychiatry to their hospital.

Dean spoke with earthiness, with fire, and sometimes with profanity.  Once, when I told him I was kind of depressed, he told me dirty jokes.  Years earlier, when it was well-known that he was part of a breakfast prayer meeting with the Governor, he threw a couple of men out of his office who thought they saw an opportunity to proselytize by turning OSH into a “Christian hospital.”  He reviewed his staff in his mind, noting one who was a Hindu, another Jewish.  He dispensed with his visitors with some colorful language.  All this from a man who was deeply religious and served in many local and national church leadership positions.  I asked him once about the way he lived out his religious beliefs at the hospital and he said simply, “I don’t believe in wearing my religion on my sleeve.”

About 6 months before he died, I was in his room when an aide came up and said, “Dottie [another resident of his nursing home] needs to see you right away!  Her granddaughter just died suddenly of an aneurysm.”   Without hesitation, he said he would go downstairs and see her.  I told Dean I should go and let him talk to Dottie privately.  He insisted, “No, no, you’re coming with me.”  I followed the doctor’s order and went with him.  Dottie was crying inconsolably and Dean talked gently with her about how she had been able to handle so many things in her life and that she would somehow find her way through this too.  His message was about resilience.  I was witnessing a 96 year old psychiatrist doing supportive therapy with a 94 year old woman who, as it turned out, had been a state hospital staff member about 40 years earlier.

There is no way we can ever replace Dean.  But we can take his lessons and live them out as best we can the rest of our lives.  I like the way the current Superintendent of Oregon State Hospital put it in the Statesman Journal article, “Every superintendent should aspire to be the second coming of Dean Brooks.”  I would say that should apply to all of us.

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