From the Chief of Psychiatry for Correctional Health Services in New York City comes a revelatory and deeply compassionate memoir that takes readers inside Bellevue Hospital’s forensic psychiatry unit and brings to life the world—the system, the staff, and the haunting cases—that shaped one young psychiatrist as she learned about respect, survival, and our shared humanity.
Welcome to the Bellevue Hospital Psychiatric Prison Ward, a maximum-security hospital and inpatient psychiatric unit for the inmates of the New York City jail system, with its hub on Rikers Island. It is a world of heartbreak, violence, and pain, where severely ill men are often lost in a tangle of courts, jails, and bureaucracy. It is also a place of challenges, redemption, and surprising joy, where tough, hardworking doctors and staff fight to care for and keep safe a population that many would like to forget. This is where Dr. Elizabeth Ford, now the Chief of Psychiatry for Correctional Health Services for New York City’s Health and Hospitals, found her calling.
Dr. Ford shares her stories of caring for these patients—from one of the most hated and alienated inmates at Rikers, who cries when discussing his abusive childhood, to the writer, who agrees to treatment in exchange for Dr. Ford’s take on the opening chapter of his book, to the twenty-four-year-old schizophrenic whom Dr. Ford later encounters on the streets of Manhattan, happy and healthy after finally finding the right medication.
Ford’s riveting memoir is marked by explosive crises and episodes of violent psychosis, but also moving stories of compassion and hope in the face of overwhelming dysfunction. Eloquent and urgent, her indelible chronicle offers affecting proof that sometimes amazing things happen.
“The individual stories of these men—who were central to my experiences as a psychiatrist—are at once incredibly humbling, terrifying, and inspiring. Through them, I learned about survival and hope.” —Elizabeth Ford, MD
About the Author
Elizabeth Ford, MD is currently the Chief of Psychiatry for Correctional Health Services for New York City’s Health and Hospitals and a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine. She spent years working on the jail inpatient psychiatry service at Bellevue and in the Bellevue psychiatric emergency room, specializing in the care of individuals with mental illness in the criminal justice system. Dr. Ford teaches and writes extensively about topics related to the interface of mental health, law, and correctional settings. She lives in New York with her family.
"In this courageous, intimate account of the troubled intersection between criminality and mental illness, Elizabeth Ford writes with compassion and insight about the most neglected and feared members of our society. Her willingness to engage fully with their humanity stands to inspire us all."
—Andrew Solomon, Ph.D., Professor of Clinical Psychology, Columbia University and author of Far From the Tree and Far and Away
"A wise man once advised me that, while unrealistic expectations can sucker-punch us, hope never will. Dr. Ford's exploration of life on a prison ward for the mentally ill pulls no punches, but like the good doctor herself, her story locates hope and compassion in the midst of institutionalized despair. Sometimes Amazing Things Happen possesses the power to open eyes, change attitudes, and affirm the worth of society's most afflicted and forgotten individuals. I was deeply moved."
—Wally Lamb, author of She's Come Undone and I Know This Much Is True
". . . a rare insider’s view of what happens in a mental hospital and on a psychiatric prison ward . . . a must read . . ."
—Benjamin Sadock M.D., Menas S. Gregory Professor of Psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine
"If you have ever been a correctional psychiatrist, no account before Elizabeth Ford’s Sometimes Amazing Things Happen quite adequately conveys the vexing challenge of caring for these immensely complex patients at the cross roads of psychiatry and the criminal justice system. These patients are tragic exemplars of the worst mishaps of childhood adversity, human cruelty, and neurodevelopment run amuck. The simplistic notion that psychiatric patients in jails and prisons are merely displaced occupants of shuttered state mental hospitals is thoroughly dispelled by Ford’s extraordinary account of caretaking for these deeply disturbed men who do bad things. She reveals their human complexity, sadness and impulsive rage, poignantly revealing the struggle of a physician to try to heal enough of what ails them in order to offer a chance at freedom. This is an illuminating account of the lives she encounters, her challenge to humanize the jail hospital environment, but moreover an unadorned exploration of how a doctor maintains hope and perseveres in the face of overwhelming human and institutional dysfunction."
—Marvin Swartz M.D., Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University School of Medicine
"A rare glimpse into the inner world of a psychiatrist, whose empathy and boundless passion cannot be easily contained . . . A poignant and powerful tribute to the human relationships that exist between doctor and patient and to a healing process that is often not unidirectional."
—Scott Soloway,M.D., Director of Manhattan Assisted Outpatient Treatment, NYU School of Medicine
"Amazing things can happen if you open your heart and mind to the idea that, even in the most challenging circumstances, dignity and humanity can be discovered, preserved and nurtured to help heal social wounds . . . As the tales unfold, readers are carried away on the amazing journey displaying the resilience of the human spirit and the chance for healing and hope."
—Debra A. Pinals, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Program in Psychiatry, Law, and Ethics, University of Michigan