Closing a Hospital Ends a Medical Community

By M. Zakir Sabry, MD

For a good four-plus years, I avoided the West Village, the same way I avoided the ICU room at the hospital where my father took his last breath. Because the memories of his last few days were so entrenched in my every cell, it was difficult to breathe while walking by that room. As I drove down 7th Avenue about two years ago, the sight of former St. Vincent’s Hospital’s sacred ground evoked a similar visceral response. Unlike my father’s passage, however, the untimely death of St. Vincent’s was largely man made. Hence, a sense of anguish often still overshadows the sense of eternal loss.

A CULTURE OF CARE DIES WITH A HOSPITAL CLOSING: Dr. M. Zakir Sabry (above) recalls with pain the loss of the professional camaraderie at St. Vincent's Hospital. Photo courtesy of M. Zakir Sabry, MD.
A CULTURE OF CARE DIES WITH A HOSPITAL CLOSING: Dr. M. Zakir Sabry (above) recalls with pain the loss of the professional camaraderie at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Photo courtesy of M. Zakir Sabry, MD.November 2016

I have a feeling I am not alone in this—most of the 6,500 former employees and voluntary physicians feel the same way, even today. For me, it gets very personal because, since the early 90s, all I had known was St. Vincent’s. It’s the place that gave a neophyte his first glance inside a human body, a maturing surgical resident his ardent skills, and a young father his coveted first born.

The most important period of my life was spent there—100-120 hours of a grueling workweek of surgical residency. There was no mercy and no compromise, and only the weak complained. Because we gave it all, at the end it gave us the confidence and skills necessary to care for a trauma patient who was shot in the
abdomen or a jilted lover who was stabbed in the heart, as chief residents.

In a city with various world-class healthcare institutions, St. Vincent’s was unique not only in its role of providing world-class care, but also in providing care to those who were less fortunate. I vividly remember an ER nurse, literally hosing a homeless person in the shower, then giving him clean clothes, and allowing him to spend the night in a corner bed on a bone-chilling night.

That sense of caring permeated the air but perhaps was also one of the reasons for its demise. The self-serving and troubled management, their inability to effectively negotiate fees with state and federal agencies, and the failure to rapidly change and keep up with changing demographics, all contributed to its extinction. Negative publicity from a couple of movie stars didn’t help matters either.

We live in a different time now. Society is ruled not by what is good or ethical but rather what is legal. The medical profession is not immune to that philosophy either—patient care is largely dictated by people in dark suits who are trained to look at every patient as a new source of revenue. As a result, “length of stay” may reflect a physician’s success more so than his sense of patient care. To paraphrase one of my patients, “There is a lot of talk of humans, but not enough of humanity.”

With the passage of time, one thing became obvious and eventually accepted—that there would be no resurrection of Saint Vincent’s. The big question however, is what happens—in the absence of a formidable healthcare institution—to a vivacious young man who is hit by a dump truck at midnight while crossing the street after his shift at an upscale restaurant in Chelsea, or to a middle aged man who suffers a sudden heart attack while having a sumptuous dinner with friends in Little Italy, or to a young jilted lover who is stabbed in the heart near Battery Park facing death due to cardiac tamponade? We can only hope and pray that on their long way to one of the bigger and better hospitals, their fate is not met enroute by Azrael.

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