In Memoriam – St Vincent’s Hospital: Ground Zero For New York City’s AIDS Epidemic

St Vincents hospital

Saint Vincent Catholic Medical Centers  or just, “St. Vinny’s” as the locals called it was located on 12th and 13th Street and 6th Avenue in NYC.  At one time St. Vincent’s was the 3rd oldest hospital in New York City after The New York Hospital and Bellevue Hospital.   It was founded as a medical facility in 1849; and named for St. Vincent de Paul. The hospital was started by the Sisters of Charity by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who went to New York City to set up a charity hospital in the city to meet the demands of the poor and disadvantaged

St. Vincent’s served the poor as one of the few charity hospitals in New York City and admitted patients regardless of religion or ability to pay.  For more than 150 years St. Vincent’s  was a beacon in Greenwich Village, serving poets, writers, artists, and the poor and the working-class. It treated victims of the cholera epidemic of 1849, to the Hudson River landing of US Airways Flight 1549.

St. Vincent’s Hospital 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 St Vincent’s stood strong to their mission.  While many other hospitals turned patients away St. Vincent’s took them in and treated and diagnosed some of the first known cases of what would eventually become known as AIDS.

St. Vincent’s was the epicenter of New York City’s AIDS epidemic. It housed the first and largest AIDS ward on the east coast and was “ground zero” of the AIDS epidemic.

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”

During the height of the epidemic the flood of patients was so extreme, every available bed was taken and patients spilled out into the hallways, 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.

Thousands of people died or were treated at St. Vincent’s for HIV/AIDS; many more passed through to visit sick partners, friends and family members. Although there were other important AIDS wards and treatment centers in New York City, none treated patients with the caring, and human compassion that St. Vincent’s did.

St. Vincent’s Hospital went bankrupt in April 2010 and closed it doors forever. For anyone familiar with that time news of St. Vincent’s demise was hard to accept.  St. Vincent’s was a standing memorial to HIV victims and the memories of friends and family.

The former hospital campus after a long battle are now luxury condiminiums. But that bland building along Seventh Avenue will always hold a place in the geography of the plague called AIDS.  It’s our ground zero, a museum of memories, 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 forever.  And no matter how they change it the buildings will always stand as a memorial to courage, compassion and dignity in

 

 

Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, writer, blogger and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Advocate, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, Raw Story, and The Huffington Post

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