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.

In 1996, the new class of protease drugs brought many AIDS patients back from the brink and freed most from their death sentence. St. Vincent’s HIV clinic documented, for a leading medical journal, the complete reversal of the hospital’s inpatient and outpatient trends from 1994 through 1996. Its AIDS ward, however, continued to meet a vital need long into its second decade as a more diverse, undiagnosed, and uninsured population filled its beds. But between the sensitivity trainings and the ghosts of all the beautiful boys that haunt it, the gay spirit hung around the hospital right to the end, by which point the weight of sin and scandal had largely shifted to the Catholic church -- and that other tribe of men in dresses.

Lee Raden
We had every kind of crazy queen and every color under the rainbow -- and some even I never imagined. I remember this one guy who was unbelievable. He was one of our frequent fliers and just way too sick. When the first protease inhibitor was still in trials, he got a doctor to put a stomach tube into his belly -- he couldn’t keep anything down -- so that we could deliver it through a tube straight into his stomach. That’s the lengths that this guy went through because he wanted to live.

And probably five years after I left St. Vinny’s, this guy finds me at Rivington House, and he’s on Rollerblades! We went out to lunch, and I’m like, “I can’t believe you’re alive,” and the whole thing. And he said, “Do you remember the day you came into my room, and I wanted my doc to help me die, and you and Maureen talked me out of it?” And I was like, “I did?” And he’s like, “Well, you didn’t, but you did. You said…” and he remembered this clear as bells. I mean, we were in love with this guy, but it was probably just another crazy morning on the sevens, and he was on the bathroom floor, and we were like, “John, get up.”

Mark Chambers
Even though I’ve left the Village and live in the country now, I can never see myself leaving Paul, my doctor. And similarly, I can never see myself being ill and not going to St. Vincent’s.

The last time I was there, in 2007, the AIDS ward had gone from being an entire floor to being half a floor to being where now you don’t know if the person in the next room has HIV or not. A lot of the gayness went. The special privileges were gone. There was a disconnect between nurses and patients. I missed the AIDS ward. I’d walk in and feel at home. There was a sense of aliveness about it, a sense of “Everybody’s present and doing something about this.” We were taking care of each other’s IVs and meds and wiping each other’s asses and doing whatever we could for each other. Today, if you do that, you’ve got two nurses telling you to get the hell away. It returned to normal. Isn’t that sad?