Working night shift in the Emergency department was always chaotic. I was born, trained at and went on to work as a registered nurse in a massive government hospital situated on the beachfront of a South African coastal city.
Built in the late 1800's, upgraded in the 1940's, the once proud and pristine building was now a glooming monstrosity of decay and disease, casting it's 16 story shadow over its south beach neighbors. Paint peeling off the solid brick walls, medical equipment that hadn't been replaced since the '80's, an ever constant staff shortage and a patient load brimming to capacity from the regions HIV pandemic, it was a depressing place to work. Having said that, I must add, excellent to get experience.
The neighborhood itself was a dangerous place to be. Lined with high rise blocks of flats and seedy time share apartments overlooking the Indian ocean, it had once been a pleasant residential suburb, quite popular with tourists but was now a Mecca for illegal immigrants, drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes. Staff of the hospital faced constant fear of robbery on the public transport or of hi-jacking, if driving ones own car. With one of the worlds highest violent crime rates and being one of the country's largest hospitals, we were beyond busy.
Every bad thing one can think of, we saw it. Hardened to the wickedness of mankind, yet compassionate for the suffering, the doctors and nurses working there had no time for nonsense, myself included.
I worked at the hospital from my early 20's into my early 30's. Over the years we had all heard stories of ghostly encounters ranging from staff of all categories to patients of every creed and culture that entered through the doors.
As a student I had a horrible experience in an old lift serving the hospitals nurses home. One afternoon after college I had to go to the library to do some research on an assignment. I was feeling the flu coming on so instead of taking the stairs up to my room on the 7th floor I decided to use the lift. The lifts at nurses home reception were having maintenance done so I walked down the corridor to the old lifts running up the center of the building. I had avoided them up until then as I had always got a bad feeling near them. I pressed the button and the first lift that came down had no light, so I waited for the next one. Alone, I stepped into the next lift and pressed number 7 on the keypad. The lift took me to the 3rd floor but didn't open it's doors. A sinister feeling overcame me. It then proceeded down a floor, didn't open it's doors, then it went up several floors again stopping and not opening its doors. At this point my heart was in my throat and I was on the brink of a panic attack. When it did eventually stop it left me on the 16th floor, which was vacant. I literally jumped out of the lift, landing on hands and knees, trembling, cold and sweaty. There was no one waiting on that floor or any of the others on my walk down to my room on the 7th floor.
After many irrelevant experiences that I often dismissed as just plain odd, in my last year of service, there was an incident that made me seriously question my perception of all things paranormal. It began 4 weeks before on my first evening of night shift for the month. As we worked from 7pm to 7am with just one doctor, 2 registered nurses and 4 nursing assistants, we took our midnight breaks alternately to ensure the department was always kept running. Half of us had gone to the staff tea lounge to relax. It was a large, dusty room with rust stained, grey lockers, crawling with cockroaches and a dining table with seating for 20. We would put the hard wooden chairs together so we could lay across them, cover ourselves with whatever clean hospital linen we could find and have a snooze. Those who weren't sleepy would sit texting friends, browsing Facebook on their mobiles or listening to music with earphones in.
That first night I slept peacefully but awoke before our break ended and gazed across the room only to see one of my nursing assistants wiping tears off his face.
When we got back to the department we relieved the others and threw ourselves back into our work. Shortly before we knocked off that morning I had a moment alone with the nursing assistant and asked him why he had been so upset. I had always known him to be a kind, genuine person, sensitive to the patients needs. He told me that he dreamt of a young woman walking down the long, dark corridor that connects the tea lounge with the trauma resus room. Crying, covered in blood and holding a small baby, she came to him asking for help. He woke up paralyzed for a few alarming moments. This dream was recurrent and it deeply disturbed him.
Keeping an open mind, I offered him my sympathy and didn't think anything more of it until a few weeks later...
It was a particularly busy Saturday evening in Trauma. Ambulances rolled in one after another with gunshot and stabbing victims. The sound of police sirens droned in the background and a sticky, salty sea breeze filtered in through the broken windows. By the time our break came we were exhausted already and the night wasn't even halfway done.
As I was settling down on my side I felt something brush up against my back and neck. Nobody was behind me as I had my chairs pushed up against the lockers. As I was drifting off to sleep it happened again and this time I turned around but nothing was there. Too tired to care and comforted that I was in a room full of people, I fell asleep shortly afterwards with nothing to fear.
I dreamed vividly of floating in the darkness from the tea lounge along the passageway, past the suture room (where I was surprised to see a patient sleeping) to the resus room. Then I was back on my chairs and a young Zulu woman came down the passage towards me looking very distressed. She had dried blood on her face, stuck to her hair and was barefoot. There was no baby in her arms. She seemed so confused and said " please Sister, help me" then she turned angry and approached me rapidly, her eyes big and bloodshot, she shook me calling me names in her native tongue, expressing her disgust that the nurses are sleeping when she needs help and is dying.
I struggled to wake up, desperate to escape this nightmare, my eyes opened but I couldn't move. Something was holding me down. I saw one of my colleagues in the darkness texting on her cellphone, its blue screen illuminating her face, completely oblivious to my situation. As soon as the weight lifted, seconds later, I regained my senses, got up and fled to the staff toilet, passing the patient sleeping in the suture room on the way. I looked at myself in the mirror and wanted to cry. I felt assaulted as if someone had given me a cold, hard slap in the face. I had felt her, heard her, seen her. In all my 30 years of life I'd never experienced anything like that before.
It was torture getting through the remaining hours of the shift. The only person I shared my experience with was the nursing assistant. He understood and confided that we weren't the only ones this spirit had bothered.
The following evening, which was to be my final night shift, I slept out on the street in my car.
Over the following months I kept my story to myself and pricked my ears whenever I heard the tea lounge gossip of one resident night shift doctor complaining of a male voice whispering in his ears when falling asleep on his break, or of the matron telling an intern to see to a patient that was asking for medical attention in the resus room even though no patients were in the department that morning.
The most bizarre story was of a doctor and a nurse actually seeing a ghost in the nurses station late one evening. Both were writing patient notes when a shabbily dressed man with a head full of dreadlocks and holes in his filthy clothes, walked in asking for help. He appeared drunk and started yelling curses at them. As they were about to inform him that no patients were allowed in the nurses station, the man faded away. The security guard that was stationed in the unit that night had even heard the swearing and had come to see what was happening.
The doom and gloom of our unit was emphasized by an off duty policeman fatally shooting himself in the head right outside our seminar room, a depressed patient hung himself in a doctors examination room and a discharged psychiatric patient stabbed herself in the neck with a butter knife in the waiting room full of patients. No debriefing or post traumatic stress counseling was ever offered to those of us that witnessed these events. We made the front page of the news several times and were even secretly filmed by an undercover news crew whilst they were covering a story on the millions of Rands that had been embezzled by senior hospital management. Ghosts were the least of our problems.
About a year later while I was working one afternoon two Zulu approached me, dressed in traditional clothing. They had traveled from the north coast and were looking for a lost relative. One of them handed me an identity book. When I opened it I was shocked to see the face of the girl from my dream staring blankly at me in black and white. The men were elders from her village that had traveled hundreds of kilometers to the hospital to find the room that she died in. They had come to retrieve her spirit. Using her name and identity number on the computer I was able to confirm for them that she had in fact died in our resus room back in 2003. She had been involved in a motor vehicle accident during the December holidays, she was only 23. I couldn't find out if she was pregnant at the time. As it was local custom I allowed the men into our resus room and watched as they carried out the ritual of calling the spirit home with a small twig. I silently prayed that it worked. It dawned on me that as she had died in 2003 and it was then 2011, it probably meant that she had been disturbing her family up in Zululand as much as she had been disturbing us.
Dark, dusty passages. Broken windows. Leaky pipes. Empty wards. Reminiscing of days gone by. I have since emigrated to New Zealand in pursuit of a brighter career and a quieter life. Former colleagues still keep in touch and last I've heard the hospital has degenerated into such a state of ill repute that it is on the brink of closure. There are rumours of the Department of Health selling the property and due to its location it may be developed into a beachfront hotel. Who knows whether those manifestations were spirits or perhaps something more sinister but one thing is for sure, it will certainly be a very haunted hotel!