I’ve spent time in many hospital emergency rooms, but my late-night visit to St. Vincent’s in January 2007 stands out. There were more crazy people, more cops and more drunk and deranged people than average, for one thing. Since I was in Greenwich Village very late on a Friday night, this shouldn’t have been surprising. Getting something as simple as a blanket took an eternity, and the nurses had a gruff, seen-it-all attitude. The place felt more like a scene from M*A*S*H than the sleepy scenarios I’ve witnessed at emergency rooms in Jasper, Alberta, or Toronto. The only one that comes close for sheer colorfulness was Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center’s ER, which featured a higher number of gunshot victims and patients chained to gurneys and guarded by police officers.
This St. Vincent’s memory came to mind because I’ve been speaking to people to get their “St. Vincent’s ER Saved My Life” stories for WestView. Many of them are elderly, and are understandably frightened that since St. Vincent’s April closure, the closest Level 1 trauma center on Manhattan’s West Side is St. Luke’s Roosevelt at 114th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Their worry: What will happen if another life-threatening asthma attack occurs, or heart attack, stroke or terrorist bombing? The extra 15 minutes or longer, depending on traffic, it takes to get to Bellevue or St. Luke’s could mean the difference between life and death.
The level of complacency among residents here in the West Village is puzzling. As one senior activist in my building put it, “No one cares, because none of them go to St. Vincent’s.” That’s probably true. Affluent, newer residents have specialists and family doctors elsewhere, who did not have admitting privileges at the atrociously mismanaged St. Vincent’s. Perhaps they imagine themselves being expedited to New York Presbyterian’s ER via helicopter when disaster strikes.
Older residents—especially those who saw the pivotal and compassionate role St. Vincent’s played in the community during the 1980s AIDS crisis—recall nuns and nurses who were like angels, compassionate doctors and a sense of community at the medical center. By the time I got there, however, it was clearly a hospital and staff that had seen better days, and was just trying to hang on. The important thing, though, was that it was there, it was open, and it offered the community trauma, emergency and crisis centers, as well as the full range of medical specialists on the premises 24/7.
Walk-in urgent care centers are simply no substitute.