R.I.P. St. Vincent's Hospital

A murder in the Village when downtown's guardian goes under

Hospitals don't ordinarily get obituaries, but surely St. Vincent's, the Village institution that tended for so long to so many of us, deserves one. Especially in the Village's own newspaper.

The announcement of the shutdown came last Tuesday, and wakes were held all week. They were mostly angry, raging affairs.

"We are watching a murder here on Seventh Avenue," Eileen Dunn, a nurse at St. Vincent's for 24 years who heads her union local, shouted to 200 neighbors and co-workers crowding the sidewalk between 11th and 12th streets on Thursday. "These thieves, they have stolen our hospital!" cried Sylvia Rosenberg, 87, a tiny woman who lives nearby. Rosenberg said she had been a patient at St. Vincent's more times than she could remember. She clutched a plastic shopping bag and craned her neck to reach the microphone: "I was a teacher in city schools for 37 and a half years. Don't I deserve to have a real hospital in my neighborhood?"

The unkindest cut
Caleb Ferguson
The unkindest cut

One of the things that makes St. Vincent's closing so jarring is that it came just two weeks after the new and hopeful national health care legislation passed. Barbara Crane, a big woman with a booming voice who heads the new national federation of nurses, told of standing next to Barack Obama in the White House last month as he called for Congress to pass the legislation: "We didn't fight for that bill so that a major hospital in Manhattan would close," she bellowed.

The shutdown perplexed those who have made careers out of desperate patient rescues. "Explain to me how it is," asked Dr. Ira Wagner, who spent 30 years in St. Vincent's intensive care unit, "that the government can bail out banks, but not a hospital?"

The debate about the perps responsible for this slaying continues: Suspects include insurance companies that low-balled the hospital on reimbursement rates; board members who threw millions at clueless executives and consultants; and politicians who dithered as a crucial community asset slid into a morass of debt.

Whatever the killers' identities, it would be hard to find a more innocent victim: St. Vincent's was the city's first voluntary hospital for the poor, founded in 1849 by a Catholic order, the Sisters of Charity. It aided victims of the cholera and tuberculosis epidemics that swept downtown in repeated waves. In 1911, it treated survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 146 after bosses locked the doors to keep out union organizers; a year later, it took in survivors of the Titanic.

It was where the lowly, the mighty, and the garden-variety zany denizens of downtown were born, cared for, and died. Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Village poet who first proclaimed the lovely light of a candle burned at both ends, was given the hospital's name after it saved her uncle's life. It was where Gregory Corso—the beat poet who "sang Italian songs as sweet as Caruso and Sinatra," as Jack Kerouac said—was born in 1930.

St. Vincent's was where yet another poet, Dylan Thomas, was taken after he collapsed at the White Horse Tavern in 1953. He didn't make it. But the hospital revived Ed Koch when the mayor suffered a fainting spell in 1983. Its doctors repaired Johnny Ramone the same year after an angry fellow musician split his skull in a pre-dawn argument. They did what they could for Daryl Cabey, paralyzed by a slug from subway shooter Bernie Goetz's pistol after he opened up on four youths aboard a downtown IRT train rumbling below the hospital.

It was where owners of the Village's legendary nightclubs drew their last breaths: Barney Josephson, of Café Society, and Bradley Cunningham, of Bradley's, both in 1988; Max Gordon, of the Village Vanguard, just down the street, went in '89. So, too, the Village's last political boss, Carmine DeSapio, who passed away there in 2004.

It was church-run, and for years, a morning prayer was broadcast for patients and staff. Conservative archbishops held sway over policies. But by accident of geography, it played the closest of roles in the lives, and deaths, of its many gay neighbors. St. Vincent's is where they brought Diego Vinales, martyr of the Stonewall riots of 1969 that changed gay life in America. Vinales fell from the roof of the Charles Street precinct while fleeing police. Hundreds of candle-bearing demonstrators held vigil outside as he lay in a coma before he died.

By the early '80s, St. Vincent's wards were crowded with AIDS victims. David Rothenberg, the theater producer who lives nearby, said that when he first visited friends with AIDS at St. Vincent's, the staff was anxious and ill-prepared. "There was all this ignorance at first. But they learned, along with everyone else. And then they were responsive. They had to be. They were inundated with patients. The Village and Chelsea had as many AIDS victims as anywhere in the country."

Eileen Dunn talked about how nervous she was then. "I was new when HIV started, and I was scared to death," she admitted. "But I was a nurse, and I held those patients in my arms."

Eventually, this Catholic hospital created a major HIV treatment unit. It became a sought-after refuge. "I'm in trouble again," says Prior Walter, the AIDS-stricken hero of Tony Kushner's saga, Angels in America. "Take me to St. Vincent's."

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