It was believed that the fresh air and country air would be beneficial for patients.. Veranda of Bellevue Hospital, 1899.
Bellevue is the oldest continuously operating public hospital in the U.S., established in 1736, and started out as a 6-bed infirmary.
One and a half blocks from where I was born (220 East 27th Street, 5th floor walkup) is Bellevue Hospital at 462 First Avenue. I was premature and born at home, then brought to New York Hospital with jaundice at 10 hours old. My childhood friends and I always associated Bellevue as a place for “crazies.” Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital opened in 1931, long after the main hospital was established.
Tuesday night was the first time I entered Bellevue, at least as an adult. I was greeted at the information desk by a bespectacled woman with short-cropped blond hair wearing a surgical mask. Her ID badge said “POLISH” in all caps above her name. She asked where I was going.
“Tenth floor, Trauma,” I said.
“Who are you visiting?” she said.
“He came in as a John Doe. I was told to ask for ‘Trauma Gallant.’ “
“Okay.” She searched in the computer.
“He’s in 10 East 20,” I said.
She said something I couldn’t decipher.
“It’s the mask,” she said.
“Yes, it’s hard to hear you behind it.”
This is the hospital that treated the doctor with Ebola; they are ready for anything.
She gave me a visitor’s sticker.
“Walk all the way down the corridor to ‘H,’ then take the elevator to the 10th floor,” she said.
The corridor entrance looked like the “new” Times Square subway station: a giant sign with the letters “A,” “B,” “C,” through “H” in different colored circles and the same colored circles lined up on the floor with an arrow leading forward. It was like entering an amusement park, but instead of cotton candy, game booths and rides, there was an Au Bon Pain to the left (hooray, my favorite coffee!) on the left and, on the right, walled by plexiglass, the original horse-drawn ambulance used by the hospital. A plaque next to the ambulance contained a photograph and mention of Dr. Emily Dunning Barringer, the first female ambulance surgeon.
ambulance circa 1869
Beyond the ambulance was a sprawling, dimly lit waiting area corralling an unmanned stroller stuffed with a child’s white down jacket, facing outwards, and two or three people in chairs, asleep or motionless. A giant silver menorah was plugged in at corridor “H,” and a security guard sat outside the elevator banks, checking visitor passes and IDs.
When I arrived at the 10th floor, my husband Lorin greeted me. I asked about the lady in the mask. “Ebola,” he said.
“Oh, yes.” She wasn’t the only employee wearing a mask.
Lorin’s dad had a heart attack Tuesday afternoon on the subway platform and was brought to the hospital unresponsive as a John Doe. Until we obtain his ID, his name is “Trauma Gallant.” His dad’s girlfriend called to say he was on his way to see a doctor in the city and was now at Bellevue. It took 3 hours for him to be located in the hospital. Lorin called continuously, and was either hung up on, put on hold or told he was not there. We didn’t know why he was there.
The doctors performed CPR and unblocked a clogged artery using a stent; they broke at least one rib. They were cooling his body by therapeutic hypothermia: cold saline was pumping throughout his body via an artery in the leg. He would be in this state for 24 to 48 hours. Then they would assess the damage to his brain. He has a team of doctors and a lovely nurse who has been kind, compassionate and helpful in every way.
The CCU or Critical Care Unit is very state-of-the-art compared to the Old New York feel on the ground floor. The doctors wheel laptops on movable tables while doing rounds from one room to the next.
Red lights flash overhead and beep periodically: “10 E 14 APNEA,” or “10 E 22 ASYSTOLY.”
His team of physicians includes a gorgeous female doctor with café au lait complexion and curly long black hair. They looked like they came from another planet, the Planet of Health and Privilege. Another was bald with a very long beard and some sort of growth (lipoma?) on his head.
There is nothing we can do for the next 24 to 48 hours, after which the “warming” process will begin, and they will assess damage to the brain. It’s best to stay clinical when you are up in the air.
His dad’s girlfriend B is very hopeful.
At 7 p.m., Lorin and I head to downstairs for a cigarette. In the elevator, we are not sure whether to press “M,” “1,” or “G,” so we press “M.” It’s the wrong floor.
A maintenance man boards the elevator and says, smiling, “It’s ‘G.’ Always look for the star next to the letter, that’s how you know.”
“Oh,” we said in unison. “Thank you.”
On the main floor, signs in the “A” building lead to a Catholic chapel, a Muslim prayer room, a Protestant chapel and a synagogue. After our cigarette, I get a cup of murky coffee at the Au Bon Pain—it turns forest green even after pouring in a generous portion of cream—and Lorin gets a bottle of water. I enjoy the murk for the alertness it brings.
On the way back to “H,” a short man heavily bundled with a backpack and walking stick trudged forward; he could have been hiking Mt. Washington.
* * *
On Wednesday night the warming process began. The doctors said he should be warm within 12 to 16 hours. Then they would assess his condition.
The frigid cold seems appropriate today.
When Lorin and I arrive on the 10th floor, one of his doctors says he had seizures last night and a few more this morning.
B strokes his dad’s hand, saying, “You don’t have to worry about anything. We are taking care of everything.”
When Lorin asks her for her assessment, his nurse says he is “purposefully unresponsive,” but it could take up to five days for his brain to “re-boot.”
The doctors decide it is best to sedate him to stop the seizures. Tomorrow is another day.