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.

As the first drugs appeared and government funding increased, people with AIDS began counting their survival in years rather than months. But the death rate kept climbing on the AIDS ward (and in New York City) until July 1995, when the initial impact of combination therapy began bending the curve. By then, the AIDS ward had been open for a decade and had developed its own special rules, rituals, and rhythms. While life hardly moved to a disco beat, gay men had certainly succeeded in resizing the “sevens” to their own liberated dimensions. The unusually sensitive nursing staff understood that this is what an authentic community hospital at the intersection between the West Village and Chelsea, not to mention gay life and death, looked like.

Mark Chambers
My first time as a patient on the AIDS ward was in ’98. I had a heart attack. I was 42. It had nothing to do with the condition of my heart and everything to do with protease inhibitors. And to tell you the truth, at first it was a little scary: I mean, the people there had AIDS -- imagine that!

The next summer, I developed very serious stomach problems. My doctor, Paul Bellman, sent me to the ER. They did a CAT scan, found an abscess in my intestine, and immediately did exploratory surgery. They wound up removing a foot of my small intestine because it was ulcerated, which they came back and told me was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I was told I had [the bacterial infection] MAI. I was told I had [the viral infection] CMV. They were giving me IV drugs that totally blew out my veins, so they put a Mediport in my chest—and within minutes, I’ve got a grapefruit-size bump on my chest. The nurse brings the surgeon, the surgeon brings the nurse. I’m off all my HIV meds because of the pending chemo. In the midst of all that, I still felt like they were taking care of me. I felt safe.

On my second visit, when I was there a lot longer, my boyfriend at the time helped make the room my own. And this was the case in a lot of people’s rooms. They brought in all the memorabilia from home. All their own blankets, pillows, photographs, artwork, books -- whatever it took to make the person feel at home. And the staff supported that.

Sex was a little nerve-racking because you never knew who was going to walk through the door. The drill was we closed the door, pulled the curtain, and got on with it. One time my partner brought a third party along -- rather than bring flowers, you could bring a dick or an ass.

Lee Raden
All you could really do was help make whoever’s life you came in touch with a little bit more comfortable. And if that involved their families, their friends, whatever, we tried to do it. We were writing it as we went along. And we made an awful lot of decisions autonomously, and we did things that were probably scandalous in other people’s eyes.

We let patients smoke. We didn’t have visiting hours. We let people spend the night in beds with their partner. We let people camp out in the rooms and on the floors and in the chairs for weeks at a time. There’d be people in drag. We would sneak people out on Gay Pride to go out to the parade: “Went down for a CAT scan,” you know. There were even nurses who worked up there who were themselves trannies.

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