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

The unkindest cut
Caleb Ferguson

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?"

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."

The day before the nurses and doctors rallied, several local politicians, led by City Council speaker Christine Quinn, showed up across from the hospital. All were angry at the turn of events, but they had already adopted a fall-back position: that an "urgent care" facility be maintained at the site. This sounded a lot like an emergency room, which is the way some papers reported it. Actually, it's a big step down from an ER. It's closer to what's called a "Doc in a Box": a retail facility to treat problems like flu or mild fractures. Trauma victims, like the kids stabbed aboard the No. 2 train last month who were rushed to St. Vincent's, will have to go elsewhere. They'll either be trucked through uptown traffic to Roosevelt on 59th Street, or cross-town to Bellevue.

"New Yorkers don't know the difference yet, but they will," warned Dr. Charles Carpati, a 21-year hospital veteran who heads its intensive care unit. Last week, he said, a young man having a severe asthma attack was rushed in—a mechanical ventilator saved his life. "He would've died," said Carpati. "That's not hyperbole."

On Thursday, nurses in their red smocks watched as tourist buses fought taxis for inches of space on Seventh Avenue. "Can you imagine being in crisis and having to get through that?" asked John Hiltunen, a 20-year hospital veteran.

Christine Stanfield, who lives on the Village's far west side, wheeled her son, Porter, a year and a half old, in a stroller to the rally. She placed a sign around his legs: "Born Here," it read. "Their neonatal services are amazing," she said. In January, she raced him to the ER after he fell off a slide in the Bleecker Street playground. "I don't know where else I would've gone," she said, shaking her head. The hospital's closing astonished her. "I've seen so many new condos go up, so many new, well-off residents. I don't understand how the population density goes up, the tax base goes up, and the neighborhood can't afford a hospital. It doesn't make sense."

It does not. What it does evoke is the line by a famous deceased patient: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

trobbins@villagevoice.com


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