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.

St. Vincent’s Timeline

• In the midst of a cholera epidemic, St. Vincent’s is founded by the Sisters of Charity, basically a poorhouse with 30 beds.

• It provides care for veterans of the Civil War.

• 106 survivors of the Titanic are taken from the Hudson River docks to St. Vincent’s.

• The first gay demonstration at the hospital is a candle-light vigil as Diego Vinales, fatally injured fleeing police during the Stonewall riots, is taken there in a coma.

• St. Vincent’s reports one of the nation’s first 10 AIDS diagnoses.
214 diagnoses, 214 deaths*

• Spellman 7 -- “the old building” -- is converted to an AIDS Ward, the city’s first, with some 20 beds; it later expands to the seventh floor of the new building, Cronin, roughly doubling the number of available beds.
3,693 diagnoses, 1,973 deaths*

• Community AIDS doctors smuggle experimental treatments into the U.S. and onto the ward for desperate patients.
• AIDS becomes the leading cause of death of men from New York in their 30s.
6,562 diagnoses, 3,797 deaths*

• ACT UP is founded at the city’s gay community center, around the corner from St. Vincent’s.
• AZT, the first HIV drug, is approved. The dose, later viewed as toxic, was one capsule every four hours.
16,010 diagnoses, 9,859 deaths*

• 22,447 diagnoses, 14,160 deaths*

• Dr. Ramon “Gabriel” Torres is hired to head the HIV clinic. He aggressively pushes the hospital to conduct research, making it a leading site of clinical drug trials.

• St. Vincent’s cancels its World AIDS Day observance because the educational materials to be handed out promote condoms.

• In June, the AIDS ward records its highest number of patient deaths in a single month.
93,825 diagnoses, 62,734 deaths*

• Protease inhibitors, a new class of HIV drug, are released, restoring health to many people with HIV and turning AIDS into a chronic, manageable disease.

• The number of AIDS deaths declines nationwide for the first time; in New York City, the drop is 50%.
• AIDS patients begin to be integrated into the general hospital population and the dedicated AIDS wards are closed one by one.

• The hospital’s refusal to approve a study of post-exposure prophylaxis following unsafe sex prompts Torres to leave. His 10-year legacy includes more than 40 clinical trials enrolling thousands of patients that earned the hospital hundreds of millions of dollars.

• St. Vincent’s merges with seven other failing Catholic-run city hospitals.
127,834 diagnoses, 80,489 deaths*

• On 9/11, as the trauma center closest to Ground Zero, the hospital treats more than 800 survivors, with AIDS ward nurses recruited to the ER for their “war-medicine” experience.

• St. Vincent’s files for bankruptcy for the first time.
152,118 diagnoses, 92,627 deaths*

• The hospital’s in-patient admissions fall by 10%, with only 14% from the West Village and Chelsea

• The hospital announces that it is filing for bankruptcy, with a $1 billion debt.
• The Pope warns against condom use, stating that they “increase” the “problem with AIDS.”

• After talks with six different city hospitals about possible partnerships founder, St. Vincent’s files for bankruptcy
• April 6: The board announces it will close the hospital.
• April 9: The ER stops accepting ambulances.
• April 15: The last baby is delivered.
• April 19: More than 1,000 staff are laid off; a gay man with AIDS and longtime St. Vincent’s patient is turned away from the ER.
• April 30: the ER locks its door, officially ending the hospital’s 161-year run.
• The HIV clinic, under the leadership of Dr. Tony Urbina, continues to operate, under the auspices of the Center for Comprehensive Care at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital.

*New York City cumulative statistics

To view a slide show of St. Vincent's, click here.