Tag Archives: plague

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/



Unsung Heroes: Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Doctor and AIDS Warrior

Gay History – Unsung Heroes: Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, Doctor and AIDS Warrior

Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, was a physician, scientist and HIV/AIDS researcher, notable for pioneering community-based research, the propagation of safe sex to prevent infection, and an early multi-factorial model of the AIDS virus.

In 1978 Dr. Sonnabend started a private clinic for sexually transmitted infections in Greenwich Village, NYC for which he was renowned and was one of the first physicians to notice among his gay male patients the immune deficiency that would later be named AIDS, during the 1980’s and 1990’s he treated hundreds of HIV-positive people.

Prior to the identification of HIV as the cause of AIDS in 1984, Sonnabend’s investigations led him to propose that AIDS among gay men might be caused by multiple factors including the Epstein–Barr virus and repeated exposure to cytomegalovirus and semen. This suggestion conflicted with the prevailing view that a single agent was likely responsible.

Sonnabend’s “multifactorial model” led him to argue early in the emerging pandemic that frequent unprotected anal sex increased the risk of what would come to be known as AIDS. Later, Sonnabend’s advice regarding condoms would be accepted as fundamental to HIV prevention.

In 1983 New York State sued a West 12th Street co-op for trying to evict Dr. Joseph Sonnabend for treating AIDS patients because fellow tenents were “afraid” of the disease and his patients. Sonnabend would later be awarded $10,000 and a new lease.

During the height of the AIDS crisis, Sonnabend helped create several AIDS organizations, including the AIDS Medical Foundation (now amfAR),  the nonprofit Community Research Initiative (now ACRIA),] which pioneered community-based research, and the PWA Health Group, the first and largest formally recognized AIDS drugs buyers’ club.

Sonnabend was renowned for protecting and promoting patients’ rights. He did not shy away from criticizing the scientific establishment when he felt it was failing to put patients’ interests first. He often disagreed with mainstream opinion on AIDS

Sonnabend became a prominent critic of the use of AZT  to treat asymptomatic, HIV-positive people, which he thought was based on insufficient clinical evidence. Nevertheless, he did prescribe the drug in short courses for people with indications of elevated interferon, which he believed might play an important role in pathogenesis and could be controlled by AZT. In 2006 he expressed his view that high doses of AZT had “killed thousands” during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

Despite his unconventional and often controversial opinions, mainstream AIDS researchers have in recent years become less critical of Sonnabend, recognizing his devotion as a physician and patients’ champion. According to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases:

“He is one of the true soldiers in the war against HIV. He is a model for a real translation of care to the patient. In terms of the controversy surrounding his work, I think, in general, at the end of the day, most would agree that his contributions have been positive. He is an outstanding man.”

In 2000, he was recognized as an inaugural Award of Courage Honoree by amfAR:

“Joseph Sonnabend, M.D., made Olympian contributions to the fight against AIDS during years when this was a lonely and thankless endeavor. He designed community-based clinical trials when there were few precedents for such research, and he displayed ethical and professional leadership in virtually every other AIDS-related field of action”

In 2005, Joseph Sonnabend retired from medical practice and moved to London.  On World AIDS Day that year, he was awarded a Red Ribbon Leadership Award from the National HIV/AIDS Partnership.



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