The Ghosts of Saint Vincent’s Hospital: Ground Zero For New York City’s AIDS Epidemic
Saint Vincent Catholic Medical Centers or just, “St. Vinny’s” as the locals called it was located on 12th and 13th Street and 7th/Greenwich 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” for one of the worst events to happen in gay history.
Dr. Dennis Greenbaum, Chairman of Medicine at St. Vincent’s, had 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, mostly gay men died or were treated at St. Vincent’s for HIV/AIDS; and 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 condominium. 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, and their last words. Memories of those who vanished from those rooms and our lives forever. And no matter how they changed the buildings they will always stand as a memorial to courage, compassion and dignity of those who were once within its walls/