Pride will feel different in the West Village this year, but the LGBTQ community has persevered through hard times before. Our vibrant pocket of New York City stood first, and stood tall, for the gay community in the midst of another pandemic 40 years ago. At that time, staff at St. Vincent’s Hospital, a flagship of New York City healthcare from 1849 to 2010, showed that heroes tend to wear scrubs more than capes. Dr. Victor Keyloun, a physician at St. Vincent’s in the early 1980s, shared this story.
In the late 1970s, medical journals began to describe case studies of young, previously healthy men across the nation who’d been afflicted with uncommon disorders like Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia. Before long, the epidemic reached New York City, and young gay men who’d suddenly become very ill showed up at hospitals, often having been turned away by family due to phobia about their sexual orientation and the pathogen they carried.
“By 1981, it became pretty obvious that whatever was infecting this group of people was devastating, because they were dying very quickly.”
Although hospitals were mandated to take in the sick, many did so reluctantly. They found various excuses for why they couldn’t treat patients; at the time, unbridled homophobia and fear afflicted some healthcare workers too. But word began to spread through the gay community about a place to go if you needed help.
“If other hospitals could find a way to delay, postpone, or obfuscate the symptoms, saying ‘we’re not capable,’ the word got out that St. Vincent’s would take you.”
Under the compassionate leadership of the Sisters of Charity nuns, the healthcare workers at St. Vincent’s took in those who had nowhere else to go. No matter how sick, gay, or poor they might have been, St. Vincent’s welcomed them. And as people with AIDS gravitated to this sanctuary West Village hospital, the doctors and nurses there, only five blocks north of the Stonewall Inn, became increasingly adept at caring for these tragically sick individuals, evolving into national leaders in the charge against AIDS. Of course, compassion and spirit alone weren’t a cure; these were heartbreaking times. But day after day, the dogged St. Vincent’s staff came to work, put on their scrubs, and provided care as excellent as existed anywhere. Patients weren’t patients, they were family.
“From a personal point of view and from an institutional point of view, it was a devastating time. But through it all, the entire AIDS epidemic, they were heroic.”
As the years passed, therapies emerged that could slow the advance of AIDS and, finally, combination therapy replaced palliative care. And while people with AIDS desperately needed this treatment haven, St. Vincent’s had also relied on AIDS patients out of financial necessity—another reason they took in these sick young men without judgement. This hospital that had served the city through disasters like the sinking of the Titanic and the 1918 Spanish flu was running out of money before AIDS emerged. Even with the financial support that came from caring for people with AIDS, the hospital entered a financial hole it never emerged from and finally shut its doors in 2010. Today, all that remains is the New York City AIDS Memorial located in the park on Seventh Avenue across from where the hospital stood.
Those days passed, and the perseverance of the LGBT community during subsequent challenges is one reason why Pride holds such a special place in so many hearts. This year, even though rainbows may shine through our screens instead of in our streets, there’s still cause to rejoice. The story of St. Vincent’s reminds us that acts of kindness for those in need can outlast any virus. That’s something worth celebrating.
Drew Davis is a copywriter entering medical school in the fall. Originally from Maryland, he moved to New York City in 2018.