I once found myself unable to smooth talk a delusional old man into returning to the psychiatric hospital after learning that he'd left against medical advice. He had spent the past several days lying on his couch in the same immodest turquoise gown they had given him and that he'd walked home in. There was a piece of tape on one forearm from the IV they'd used to rehydrate him.

He was so entranced by voices and grand ideas that he only got up to snack on leftover KFC mashed potatoes and gravy from the fridge. He had lost interest in his usual pastimes: composing poetry (Martin Luther King Jr. is a hell of a man,/I’m not fit to kiss that man’s shoes) and sticking Hustler Magazine pages to his walls with paste he made himself out of flour and water.

He was not taking his medications or washing himself or his clothes. None of my usual strategies were working. When he finally chased me out of his subsidized apartment brandishing a plastic spoon yelling, “If you don’t get out of here, I’m going to stuff these potatoes right up your ass,” the only choice was to call for an ambulance.

Our problem wasn’t a big priority since he could probably stay alive indefinitely with this set of symptoms. I sat waiting on the hallway stairs while I rescheduled appointments and caught up on paperwork. When two firemen arrived, I reviewed the situation with them. They seemed bored by the abundance of healthy vital signs. One of them said to him, “Sir, why don’t you let your case manager drive you over to the hospital?”

He paused, turning his face away to consider the idea, then said, “Okay.”

As we pulled away, he waved good-bye to the men like a little boy after visiting a pilot in an airplane cockpit. I could sense their pity for him that I didn’t try asking him nicely to begin with, not realizing that it was their uniforms that had sealed the deal.