St. Vincent’s Hospital has never strayed from its core mission to provide care with respect, compassion and dignity for the poor and displaced members of society and in 1981 when a mysterious disease began affecting gay men in New York City. While many other hospitals turned patients away St. Vincent’s Hospital, near the border of the Greenwich Village on West 12th Street did not. In fact, the hospital treated and diagnosed some of the first known cases of what would eventually become known as AIDS.
Dr. Dennis Greenbaum, Chairman of Medicine at St. Vincent’s, has been with the hospital for 42 years. He saw the horror that HIV/AIDS wrought in the early days. “We didn’t know how to protect ourselves. The ICU would be filled with crying families,” Greenbaum says. “There were funerals every week. I used to live on 13th Street. I had four next-door neighbors who lived in a huge loft and all of them died. I used to go to a lot of funerals. Then we lost our own doctors. We lost the chiefs of our HIV program.”
The obituary for St. Vincent’s, when it is finally written, will recall that the hospital’s greatest moment—and its darkest when it found itself quite awkwardly in the thick of the global AIDS plague. The flood of patients was extreme, spilling into every available bed, then throughout the surrounding corridors, where masking tape marked off virtual rooms
Sal Licata, a city AIDS specialist, spent his last days at H-01 (H for “Hallway”), waiting in vain for a room to die in. A few feet down the hall was pneumonia-weakened Aldyn McKean, his old friend, a hero of ACT UP. If you knew one patient at the hospital, you likely knew others.
For anyone familiar with those rooms and those days, news of St. Vincent’s demise is hard to accept. There is no true standing memorial to HIV victims, even though there were more from New York by 1995 than U.S. deaths in the Vietnam War. The bland building along Seventh Avenue holds that place in the geography of our plague memory; it’s our ground zero, it is a museum, a place haunted. We see the ghosts as we pass there even now, we hear their voices, their last words, and the memories of those who vanished from those rooms and our lives.
Goodbye Saint Vincent’s.
And thank you.