St. Vincent's Remembered

8.17.2010

By Out.com Editors

Walter Armstrong's moving oral history of the Catholic hospital that was ground zero for AIDS in the '80s. It may have closed its doors for good -- but the people who were there won't soon forget it.

Patients having threesomes, tranny Santa and Mrs. Claus stringing Christmas tree lights, doctors smuggling experimental drugs, Ed Koch dropping by -- all were part of St. Vincent's Hospital, the ground zero for AIDS and one time home to survivors of the Titanic, the Stonewall Riots, and 9-11. Four months out from the Catholic hospital's closing, Walter Armstrong compiled an oral history of the hospital's most harrowing and heartfelt moments from the peak of the epidemic to its final days.

Buried under a billion-dollar debt, St. Vincent’s Hospital stands empty now, its last patient discharged April 30 as local residents rallied outside to protest the loss of a medical center that had served the West Village and Chelsea for 160 years. The ER, which had become a memorial site -- plastered with protest posters, letters of gratitude and grief, flowers and candles, even photographs of babies born in its delivery room -- is now boarded. At night, stripped of ambulances and sirens and flashing red lights, the city’s last Catholic-run hospital takes on a ghostly aura as its bricks await the wrecking ball.

The closing of St. Vincent’s has a special resonance for the generation or two of gay men who survived the AIDS crisis.

From 1981, when the hospital reported one of the very first cases of AIDS, to 1995, when HIV-related deaths peaked, St. Vincent’s provided a setting for the desperate development of one of the nation’s biggest and best HIV treatment centers. Driven by a sense of urgency that is now almost impossible to recapture, the gay community conspired with some remarkable doctors, nurses, and a nun or two to create an AIDS ward so unique -- and so different from the rest of the hospital -- that it seemed like another planet.

In the pause before St. Vincent’s vanishes forever, Out asked me to collect the memories of some survivors of that time and record something of life on that planet. —Walter Armstrong

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