This is Why We Need a Hospital to Replace the Great St. Vincent’s Hospital

 07/08/2022      Neighborhood

By Roger Paradiso

photo by Maggie Berkvist

“I’ve got to sit down,’ said Maggie, her face taut with anxiety. It was ‘I have to sit down now.’ We were walking on Bleecker Street and, with half of her right lung excised by cancer and radiation, she could not walk another step, not another step. Yet there was no place to sit down.

“I eyed a shop across the street, and as we entered, I noted a bench-like display rack and asked if Maggie could sit. ‘This is not a sitting shop,’ the prissy clerk sneered. ‘Go across the street, there is a bench.”

—George Capsis, West View News, 1/1/2013

I’d asked George Capsis, the publisher of the best community paper in New York City, why it is important to build a hospital in the West Village to replace St. Vincent’s.

People are afraid of hospitals and yet people want them. Hospitals like St. Vincent’s are sacred places. They are where our children are born and our loved ones die. They are where we go when we have a health crisis. We ask the doctors to save us from pain or death. And many times, they do. There are miracles at hospitals that occur every day—without fanfare, except to the families who interact with the hospitals.

St. Vincent’s was a different hospital for sure. It was a Catholic hospital started by the Sisters of Charity. It took in anyone regardless of race or creed. You could be a homeless person or a person of wealth. All were treated to the best care they could provide. It was a sacred place that served the West Village well. And it was taken away from us. And from the most vulnerable people.

“About a year ago, I started to get up and I felt dizzy, even nauseous, and I knew I could not stand. Maggie, after her lung cancer operation, was frail, and now I was the patient and had to ask her to call 911.

“Where do you want to go?’ asked the ambulance driver. From many visits with Maggie, I knew, only too well, the Beth Israel’s facility at East 16th Street and First Avenue. So I thought I would try NYU (I was becoming an expert on emergency rooms).

“NYU’s emergency room is tiny, with only 18 patient treatment positions—curtained-off receiving alcoves. They rolled me into one originally designed for one person, but already occupied by a plump self-indulgent man in great audible distress. ‘I need a cell phone—somebody give me a cell phone.’

“A nice nurse confided that they often double, even triple the in-flow, with patients in the hallway (I recall him saying they had over 60 one night).”

—George Capsis, WestView News, 1/1/2014

Hospitals are holy places in our lives. They bring life and, other times, death. They are sacred places of healing. And yet we only think of them when we need them. 

“My wife had a very hard-to-repeat Greek first name, ‘Andromache,’ which, understandably, in popular use, became Maggie. I did not like ‘Maggie,’ but the shortened Greek version of Andromache is an unattractive ‘Machie,’ so I never called her by name but merely directed my speech in her direction.

“As a young woman she was probably a heavy smoker; she developed lung cancer which lingered and slowly metastasized until late in our marriage. After the kids were gone it became a terminal cancer growth.

We didn’t know it was terminal, and the doctor who was treating it did not tell us (evidently this is something they do). But they did direct that she go to Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. We would say ‘no’ and they would say ‘yes,’ and this would go on and on until we were visited by a team of medical types. The head man of the team was very insistent that ‘your wife’ has to go to Calvary and that we were lucky they had an opening.

“Until the first day I went to see Maggie in Calvary Hospital, I had never visited the Bronx—never. So as my bus drove north, deeper and deeper into the heart of this, for me, very strange land of cheaply built shops and tenements, my heart sank. I had a premonition that this was not where a world-class hospital to cure cancer would be built, but would be a place where people would be allowed to die. I was about to visit an end-of-life hospice.

“The rooms were small and crowded; and all of the help attended the furniture of hospital, not the patients who were closed-eyed and silent, as was Maggie. She never knew when I visited—she never spoke to me—and yet I came and came again, not willing to accept that this was a dying place, not a hospital to cure.

“I became angry, very angry, because I felt they were not trying to save Maggie’s life. I never found a doctor to talk to; indeed, I NEVER EVEN SAW A DOCTOR.

“Yes, I got very mad and wrote an e-mail to the director and demanded a meeting. When I arrived at the meeting with my son Doric, we found a room filled with medical types, even nurses in uniform, and I wondered why all these people were in this room to listen to what I had to say. I was just the husband of yet another dying patient. And they were all dying—all of them. Yet they listened respectfully as I allowed my rage to well forth at the image of my silent wife in a small room visited only by the backs of cleaning ladies. Soon after, I got a telephone call—‘Your wife is dead.’

“Right after that, I found myself on a platform in front of the 160-year-old St. Vincent’s Hospital that was about to be demolished, with a politician making a speech as to why the crowd should vote for him with no mention of the imminent hospital’s destruction. I reached my hand up to grab his chin to point it up to the hospital as THE cause he should espouse when, suddenly, he turned abruptly and it looked like I was taking a swing at his jaw. Others alerted an ‘attendant’ to remove me from the platform. I gave the attendant’s cheek a slap and he fell to the floor in tears.

“I was angry—angry that the warm familiar hospital to which I had taken my wife for treatment was going to be torn down to build luxury apartments and nobody was stopping it. I was angry because I’d had to travel for over an hour into the ugly nightmare of the Bronx.

“West Village folk gathered and made speeches and shouted, but nobody stopped the demolition. Making money, lots and lots of money, in this country, is always the ‘right’ thing to do.

“A mother and a father wrap their arms around a growing child when he or she is ill, just as a community hospital wraps its care around the patients of the neighborhood. And we can walk to its doors.”

-George Capsis, West View News, 6/23/2022

This is why we need to fight for another hospital to replace the great St. Vincent’s Hospital. There will be petitions placed in stores in the Village after July 4th. Please sign them if you want a new hospital for the West Village, Tribeca and other parts of the Lower West Side.