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.

At ground zero of the epidemic, St. Vincent’s had a mission to serve the gay men with ravaged immune systems and Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions and rare infections who were showing up in the ER in ever-growing numbers. The quality of the Catholic hospital’s mercy remains a contentious issue to this day.

Mark Chambers, Aids Ward Veteran
The early years are still like a horror movie that you have nightmares over, and then you realize it wasn’t real, except it was. At St. Vincent’s you didn’t get inside the hospital -- you got into the emergency room, and that’s where your friends were lined up on gurneys. My most vivid memory is of my best friend -- who I had gotten a call about 12 hours earlier -- still lying there, wasting and close to death, along with many other AIDS patients, waiting for attention. It was a scene of total helplessness on the part of both the patients and the staff.

Eric Sawyer, UNAIDS: The Joint United Nations Program On Hiv/Aids
When you call 911, the emergency ambulance takes you to the nearest hospital, so St. Vincent’s was quickly overwhelmed. And even though they had some Catholic dogma-related policies that were homophobic, it was one of the few hospitals in the city that never turned its back on people with HIV.

Allen Roskoff, Gay Activist
Very early in the epidemic, Arthur Bell, the gay movie critic for The Village Voice, was in St. Vincent’s, and he kept taking the crucifix off the wall, and the nuns kept putting it back up. Finally, he got so angry that he put the crucifix in his bedpan and pissed on it, and that caused a whole scene. After that, they were really nasty to him until [then-mayor] Ed Koch came to visit him.

Howard Grossman, Aids Doctor
I have a lot of respect for the people who did HIV work there, because they were not only fighting the epidemic, they had to fight the administration. The hospital was officially opposed to condom distribution, so people had to give them out secretly. That hypocrisy bugged the hell out of me, and I was relieved when I could admit my patients to other hospitals.

Joseph Sonnabend, AIDS Doctor
Until ’85 or ’86, they were not welcoming of this disease. The nurses were the compassionate ones. But I heard doctors making horrible jokes about gay guys. Some of my patients had dreadful experiences in the emergency room. Then things improved. Why? It may have been all the money in AIDS that became available. The hospital improved its PR—it put up billboards that said, we care. But nobody can say that all of a sudden St. Vincent’s, institutionally, started to like gay people.

Barbara Starrett, AIDS Doctor
In 1982, the gay and lesbian doctors held a big meeting at St. Vincent’s when Jim Curran came up from the Centers for Disease Control. He said very clearly what we all intuited—that AIDS was sexually transmitted and not easily communicable. Because of that, St. Vincent’s always had open arms to anybody with HIV. In the beginning, there were aides afraid to come into a room, but thanks to the doctors and nurses constantly educating, that was soon not a problem. When I gave out condoms, the nurses would just look the other way.

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