Cord Pulled on Ailing Queens Hospitals
by Jeffrey Harmatz
Feb 17, 2009 | 2305 views | 0 0 comments | 64 64 recommendations | email to a friend | print
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Despite community outrage, St. John’s and Mary Immaculate Hospitals were effectively closed down to new patients on Saturday. The hospitals, which are managed by the recently bankrupt Caritas, were all but shut down on Saturday, as ambulances were diverted from their emergency rooms, surgery departments began to close, and a majority of the staff was laid off. Saturday’s changes are the latest step in the full closure of the hospitals, which is scheduled for February 28.

As of Monday, only the Intensive Care Unit is open at St. John’s, and patients from both hospitals are currently being transferred to other nearby hospitals, including Jamaica Hospital, Elmhurst Hospital, and Wyckoff Hospital. But the loss of more than 400 beds is likely to overwhelm the already busy hospitals of Queens.

“When you ask other hospitals if they can handle 25 more people in their emergency rooms, they point out the line that already exists. How are hospitals like Elmhurst and Jamaica going to handle the diversion of more than 400 more people?” asked Keith Chiu, a paramedic. “Is it ever a good thing to close a hospital?”

“Those hospitals look like a disaster zone,” said Kim Zambrotta, a registered nurse formerly employed at St. John’s. “They are stretcher to stretcher.

“We need to find out where the 44,000 people served by these hospitals a year will go now,” said Patrick Nicolosi, an EMS.

In addition to the sick and infirm, St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals employ nearly 3,000 doctors, nurses, and medical specialists, who will be forced to look outside of the borough and even the city for work.

Staff members have described the closing as though they were losing a family. “We’ve been mourning all week. I have to get a new job, but I’m too overwhelmed to even start on my resume,” said Zambrotta.

“The real reason why our hospital is closing is because we take care of the middle-class and uninsured,” said Dr. Eli Schessel, St. John’s chief of plastic surgery. He suggested that HMO contracts do not reimburse Queens hospitals as much as they do Manhattan hospitals. “Queens is a border county. Our border is JFK airport. I have cared for moribund patients with large wounds who practically came right off an airline. Border states have received federal funds for such cases. Why not Queens?

The announced closure of the hospitals was countered with an enormous movement from the Queens community as they tried to save the hospitals, though their efforts may have come too late to affect any changes within the state government. On Friday, staff and neighbors of the two facilities gathered at each to ask for a reprieve from the closure, just twelve hours before ambulances were diverted.

Though the rally-goers’ calls for a reprieve ultimately went unanswered, it was clear that residents and representatives of Queens were angry about the situation.

“The community cannot afford to have these hospitals closed,” said Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley. “Health care is so important. Without it, we have nothing.”

“We can’t have an increasing population and decreasing medical services,” said Heidi Chain, a community activist and member of Community Board 6. “We’re right here on the ‘Boulevard of Death,’ and we don’t have any hospitals.”

Though they have accepted that St. John’s and Mary Immaculate are closed for good, the employees and residents left out in the cold by the closures have refused to give up the fight. Hoping to prevent what they see as the further endangerment of the borough at the hands of flawed health care system and uncaring government, they will continue to protest for and work towards across-the-board improvements to the borough’s hospitals.

“We are currently putting in a request with Attorney General Andrew Cuomo to investigate the board of Caritas and the Department of Health,” said community leader Ruben Willis.

Another rally is scheduled to take place Wednesday in front of Governor David Paterson’s Manhattan office.

“We have people lobbying for banks and other industries, but no one is lobbying for hospitals in a health care system that no one has fixed,” said Zambrotta. “If there is one good thing that came out of this closure, it is that the health care professionals of Queens are speaking with a unified voice.”

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