What does the AIDS epidemic have to do with the events of September 11? Nothing -- and everything. Shana Naomi Krochmal on a tale of two tragedies, one hospital and a community of compassion.
There was a time, long before the current terror, when we said ground zero and meant the gay community clustered around Christopher Street, say, or the Castro. Even then, St. Vincent's Hospital and Medical Center, in Greenwich Village, was the epicenter of a fresh hell. The conservative Catholic hospital, with its many images of Christ and the sad-eyed saints, held desperate gay men with AIDS, grieving lovers and embattled doctors. Many of New York City's PWAs came to St. Vincent's seventh-
Yet HIVers weren't the
And then, on September 11, a phalanx of physicians in green scrubs gathered amid a raft of stretchers, wheelchairs and ambulances on Seventh Avenue outside St. Vincent's -- once again the designated trauma center to this new Ground Zero. The hospital administration immediately turned to its AIDS Center staff to coordinate the disaster plan and manage the emotional fallout. "I certainly didn't expect to get asked to be the disaster expert," said Kristina Jones, MD, the AIDS Center's director of psychiatry, with a long-suffering laugh. "But AIDS is a chronic disaster, so here I am."
With skills forged in the crucible of the epidemic, the center's 70-person staff applied old lessons to the new crisis. "This was our chance to do it a second time," said Matt Baney, the center's administrative director since 1993, when the 150 beds on St. Vincent's AIDS unit were packed with PWAs. "With AIDS we did a lot of things wrong the
The hundreds of doctors waited on the sidewalk for the estimated 5,000 victims, breathing smoke and ash through surgical masks and watching the TV crews spring into action when the occasional ambulance arrived. Meanwhile, local HIVers taking in the scene's overabundance of MASH-like units and outpouring of volunteers nursed their own share of painful emotions: Where was the nation's disaster plan when HIV decimated a generation of gay men in the '80s? Imagine then-mayor Ed Koch sounding as stricken by AIDS' toll as Rudolph Giuliani by the WTC attack when asked to predict casualties: "More than any of us can bear."
"Yes, there was a bit of bitterness about what we had to go through," Baney said. "A trauma like this reopens so many wounds that you thought were covered up." And two decades of AIDS horror may have even served as a buffer of sorts, he said. "Because of the epidemic, we lived through the explosion already. September 11 seems like a quiet muf
Night fell on the besieged city, and as the Day After dawned, the platoon of waiting helpers had to face a terrible truth: Silence indeed equals death. After the
But they didn't. And that's when the AIDS Center's staff and scores of HIVers found their true calling, as they switched gears from managing the crisis to caring for the caretakers -- helping an army of shocked medical practitioners accept their powerlessness to save.
Day and night, stunned family members from all over metropolitan New York stood in long lines outside St. Vincent's for a chance to call out the name of their missing at an info table set up by center staffers. Inside, the scene was reassuringly busy for those in charge: Exhausted police and
In the ensuing days, as the realization set in that few of the countless lost in the wreckage would be recovered alive -- or at all -- the scene at St. Vincent's became that of a monumental memorial. The hospital's southern wall was plastered with hundreds of handmade pamphlets bearing photos of the once-smiling faces and identifying details of the missing. There were masses of
New Yorkers arrived on the scene to donate work boots, socks, gloves,