St. Vincent's Remembered


By 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.

Lee Raden
I never thought it was a warm and fuzzy place. To have so many people a month dying on your unit was pretty much unheard of other than in a time of war. Anybody who walked on that unit knew how sick people were, knew that there was no cure, knew that there were no meds, and that the meds were killing people if the disease wasn’t. I mean, I know I killed people with amphotericin B—but do you die from a fungal infection, or do you die from the drug? That’s how it was in those days.

Most of the physicians, at the time, were young. Many were gay. They had come up with the epidemic, as we all did, and were also overwhelmed. They wanted to save the world and help patients with AIDS, but they were basically faced, from a medical perspective, with failure. We had doctors who flew in stuff from Mexico, only we couldn’t administer it. So they sat by the bedside of patients and gave them all kinds of stuff that was not approved. It was unbelievable. In nursing, if you keep someone comfortable and allow them to die with dignity, you have a positive outcome. In medicine, death is never a positive outcome.

Barbara Starrett
I had a patient whose father was big in the Brazilian military. He flew to Paris and brought back HPA-23, the drug Rock Hudson was on, for his son. In the fall of ’87, AZT became available, and my papers were in the mail the day it was released. As naïve as I was, I was constantly thinking that a cure is just around the corner.
Another patient on Spellman 7 had KS in the lungs. He wasn’t responding to chemo, and he did not want to die, but he was having respiratory problems, and he wanted to be intubated. He had no more lung tissue, and still I said, “You want to be intubated” -- he was turning blue -- “OK, you’ll be intubated.” Should I have said, in those last minutes, “Let me just hold your hand, and we’ll let you go quietly. We’ll give you a little morphine?”

Sean Strub, POZ Magazine Founder
Sometimes you would just drop by the AIDS unit with no specific person to see. You just made yourself useful. You knew where the clean linens were, you emptied urine bottles, and the staff was glad to have you around. I remember going in to see one guy, just a friend of a friend. He was too weak to speak -- just lifted up his hand, like he wanted me to touch it. And that was an odd feeling -- holding the hand of this person who was very, very ill and sitting there and understanding that I didn’t have to say anything. Just being there for him to touch was as much as I could do.

But once I started going to ACT UP demos, I spent a lot less time at St. Vincent’s.