Volume 17, Number 44 | March 24 - 31, 2005

Changing hospital hopes to change its reputation

The first part of NYU Downtown Hospital’s new emergency room opened this week, above and below. Downtown Express photo by Ramin Talaie

By Ronda Kaysen

When Linda Belfer awoke in an intensive care unit in April 2004, two days after a string of seizures rendered her unconscious, she had no idea where she was.

When the attending physician told her she was at NYU Downtown Hospital, Belfer, a 20-year Battery Park City resident, recoiled.

“Get me the hell out of here!” was the first thing she managed to say about a hospital that she had long considered seedy.

Her father, on his deathbed, refused to be transported from Belfer’s apartment to the neighborhood hospital with a reputation for inconsistent communication with patients and their families, supply shortages and poor hygiene.

“Beekman was one of the most disgusting things I’d ever seen,” Belfer said, using a previous name for the only hospital south of Canal St. But by the time she was stabilized and ready for transport to one of Manhattan’s more popular hospitals, her opinion had changed.

The care she received was excellent, she said, noting the extensive efforts the various doctors took to diagnose her seizures (they were ultimately linked to withdrawal from prescription medication).

A year after her seizures, the attending physician who treated her remains Belfer’s primary care doctor. “The place has done such a turnaround,” she said. “I would not hesitate to go there for anything at this point.”

NYU Downtown Hospital has been making strides to reform its image with the community in recent years. This week, it completed the first phase of its emergency room expansion — opening a new, 9,000 sq. ft. emergency room.

In the fall of 2006, all 26,000 sq. ft. of the $25 million emergency room — equipped with a decontamination room, a chest pain emergency unit, an enlarged trauma room, a pediatric suite and a woman’s health suite — will be complete.

“When you look at [the hospital] from the outside, it doesn’t fully demonstrate the investment that’s been made on the inside,” Dr. Bruce Logan, the hospital’s president and C.E.O. told Downtown Express in a telephone interview.

The hospital also has plans to sever its relationship with N.Y.U., ending months of speculation. “We both mutually decided that that affiliation will in fact end,” Dr. Logan said, noting that an agreement between the two institutions has been reached in principle. “We’re moving on to a new affiliation.”

The new affiliation will be with New York-Presbyterian, according to a Downtown Hospital source who requested anonymity. New York-Presbyterian “is extremely excited about this because it fits right in with their strategy for Lower Manhattan,” said the source.

Kathleen Robinson, a spokesperson for New York-Presbyterian, would not confirm any negotiations between the two hospitals. “At this point in time, they’re still affiliated with N.Y.U.,” she said of Downtown Hospital.

The hospital has a history of brief relationships with larger institutions: before it merged with N.Y.U. in 1998, it was in a seven-year partnership with New York Infirmary when the hospital was known as New York Infirmary-Beekman Downtown Hospital. Prior to 1991, it was known simply as Beekman Downtown.

Despite its various partnerships, the hospital has long endured financial trouble. In 1991, the state classified the hospital “financially stressed” because of its large population of Medicaid and uninsured patients and in 1998 its C.E.O. at the time characterized it as a hospital that had suffered “from almost three decades of neglect.”

But last year, the hospital sold its parking lot to developer Bruce Ratner for $85 million, a move it made in large part to resolve some of its financial troubles.

“We’re definitely doing much better, but we’re certainly not out of the woods yet,” Dr. David Goldschmitt, chief of the emergency department told Downtown Express during a recent tour of the hospital’s new emergency room.

As part of the sale agreement, 25,000 sq. ft. of the 75-story tower planned for the site will be reserved for the hospital’s new ambulatory center. The former ambulatory center will be converted to additional inpatient space. The project also includes a public K-8 school.

NYU Downtown Hospital serves a large residential population along with nearly 300,000 office workers, many of whom come to the hospital unexpectedly. Thirty thousand people come through the hospital’s emergency room every year.

“You can have the most fabulous cardiologist in Connecticut, but if you have a heart attack on Vesey St., you’re coming here,” said hospital spokesperson Vanessa Warner of the commuting population.

Some residents remain wary of the hospital and are hesitant to visit it. “I’ve always felt it a shame that I don’t want to use that hospital,” said Southbridge Towers resident Karen Pearl. She recently visited the hospital’s emergency room suffering from a panic attack. Pearl was appalled by the hospital’s appearance. “We went into a room and the room was filthy. It was just disgusting; I couldn’t wait to get out of there.”

When Arthur Gregory, who owns the A & M Roadhouse on Murray St. and lives in Southbridge Towers, fell off scaffolding last January, shattering his ankle, the paramedics rushed him to NYU Downtown Hospital. Although the doctors treated him quickly, there was little they could do for his leg and suggested he see an orthopedic specialist at another hospital. He could spend the night in the hospital, they told him, but because of a shortage of beds, he would have to triage in the E.R. Gregory chose to go home instead. “It was one thing 10 years ago when there weren’t that many people living here,” he said of the space shortage. “There’s got to be 5,000 people living around here now.” The residents, he added, are aging and many need geriatric care.

The new emergency room, when completed, will have space for twice as many patients, Warner said.

With only one hospital available to a neighborhood that is expected to add 13,000 new residences in the next five years, City Councilmember Alan Gerson has decided to launch a hospital needs study for City Council District 1.

The hospital is hesitant to fully embrace the study that it helped Gerson design, primarily because it insists the changes are already underway. “We don’t object to the study, particularly,” Logan said. “We [just] think that it will point out the work that has [already been underway] here for many, many years.”


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