Sunstroke Out of Nowhere


It was a lovely day in June, 1964, so lovely, in fact, that I decided at the tender age of 19 that my charges (patients) at the Adolf Meyer Building (Admittance Building) should have a chance to enjoy the balmy weather, too, and not be confined to the inner walls of a psychiatric hospital at the Institute for Mental Health (IMH) in Cranston, RI.

I was an attendant at the hospital for the summer which meant we summer college kids were probably filling in for regular staff on vacation. But it’s important to note: We had no training…no mentorship. Despite that, I requested (and was unbelievably allowed) to take my women patients out on the hospital grounds for a walk (perhaps I just appeared super responsible but really, in hindsight, this was a poor plan allowed by my superiors.)

My ladies had all been properly prepared. They were dressed; they’d eaten breakfast and had taken their morning meds.

Following that, I escorted 10 of them out of the locked ward. I knew I could handle all in the way 19 year old’s believe they can handle anything.

Since Adolf Meyer was the “admittance building” all levels of patients were housed there until assignment to specific buildings depending on their level of need which meant we were a motley crew (no—not the musical group).

My women and I walked along the dense fields of corn on the periphery, up the sidewalks, strolling under the elm and birch trees, sitting there for a while, too, to take in the loveliness of the day. But when we weren’t in the shade, we were out in the sun’s blazing rays. I thought it a great plan to get the nourishing sun, for as a young woman, I often pulled my chaise lounge out into the yard, from March on, and baked in the sunlight, in my quest to get a tan. I had always found getting the sun so relaxing. I wanted that for my women and I gave it to them for approximately 60 minutes.

One of my women, Laura, stayed pretty close to me, throughout our stroll, and I was so energized by our shared “feel good” experience that I never noted an aspect about her til it was almost too late: 45 minutes or so into our walk, her face was aflame—She was almost purple, really, burning up, not from fever but presumably from the sun. I was pretty certain she had sunstroke and I couldn’t figure out why.

I hurriedly got her and the rest of my women back to the side door of the admittance building and ushered them up the stairs to the locked ward. I notified the ward nurse (and my supervisor) about Laura.

That’s when I learned that Thorazine, a medication Laura was on, could affect this reaction in some who are exposed to the sun. Laura had quickly developed phototoxicity, a drug-related adverse reaction to the sun—a hypersensitivity.

Now, one would’ve thought someone in authority would have warned me about such a possibility or even disallowed Laura from going on our little field trip but that was so not the case.

During my job at the IMH, I always seemed to learn important information after the fact…

The following is a note on Thorazine…It’s only one of the drugs that adversely reacts to sunlight.

Before summer, check on your own medications before you head out to the beaches and outside activity. And as an aside, it’s always a good idea, too, to check on side effects of the meds you take.


Chlorpromazine, more commonly known by the brand name Thorazine, is an antipsychotic drug used to treat adults with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It’s also used to treat nausea, vomiting, and intractable hiccups. Patients taking chlorpromazine can experience an exaggerated sunburn reaction and sometimes blisters and lichenoid skin eruptions.


Colleen Kelly Mellor ( writes of her experiences growing up in Rhode Island in the 50’s and 60’s. Comments are always welcome.

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