- Historic Sites
Bellevue No One Was Ever Turned Away
With its roots in the medically benighted eighteenth century, and its history shaped by the needs of the urban poor, Bellevue has emerged on its 250th anniversary as a world-renowned center of modern medicine
February/March 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 2
The syringes we used for drawing blood were not plastic and disposable, as they have been for the last several years; they were made of glass and were supposed to be sterilized after each use. But at Bellevue there were never enough syringes to use a different one on each patient; and even among the syringes we had, roughly half worked poorly or not at all. As a consequence, when a resident found a syringe that worked well, he might use it on a dozen or more patients in a single morning, and if it was still working well, he’d hide it away to use the next day. Sometimes “hiding it away” meant simply sticking it in his pocket until time to draw blood the next morning. One good syringe might serve for a week. Such behavior, in 1987, would bring the wrath of the director down on the resident’s head—it was a terrible breach of sterile technique—but in 1953 you learned to make whatever accommodations were necessary to get the job done. If you learned nothing else at Bellevue, you learned expediency.
There were never enough dressings, tape, rubber gloves, and ointments for all the patients who needed them. We did the best we could with what we had. We compensated for the lack of equipment by working harder. We took pride in seeing to it that, despite all the physical and mechanical handicaps Bellevue presented, no patient went without proper care. Maybe we couldn’t match the elaborate equipment that Presbyterian and New York hospitals had to offer, but, by God, we residents, nurses, and aides saw to it that our patients got the best personal care available anywhere. There was an esprit de corps at Bellevue that I haven’t seen matched since I last walked out of there on June 30,1960. I love that damned hospital; and so, I believe, does virtually every resident who has ever been part of it.
Strangely—or perhaps it isn’t so strange—in the twenty-six years since I left Bellevue, my formal training completed, I’ve never been back. I’ve revisited New York dozens of times, but I’ve never felt I belonged any longer at Bellevue. It’s a place to work and study and train, and when you belong to Bellevue it owns you, body and soul. But once the umbilical cord is severed, someone else takes your place. Residency training eventually ends (when you’re going through it, it often seems the end will never arrive), but Bellevue goes on forever. Two hundred and fifty years so far, and still going strong.
In 1966 Cornell and Columbia agreed to break connections with Bellevue; it’s now all NYU. The new, completely upto-date Bellevue opened in 1973—outpatient first, then (1975) inpatient, finally (1985) the psychiatric division. There were twenty-five hundred beds in 1953; now, as in most hospitals, there are fewer—twelve hundred in all. And, I’ve been told, everything is up to date, first class, the best available. Bellevue has been designated as a trauma center, a limb-replant center, a heart station, and a head and spinal-cord injury center—a veritable medical mecca. Lorinda Klein, who works on the Bellevue History Project, tells me that because of its facilities, experience, and superb staff, Bellevue is the hospital to which the President of the United States would be brought if he should need urgent hospital care during a visit to New York City. You can’t get any better than that.
At the same time, just so it doesn’t ever forget its origins, the corridors of Bellevue are still filled with the “wretched refuse” of the city. The poor and neglected of earlier times are replaced by their present-day counterparts. From drug addicts to AIDS victims, Bellevue embraces them all. Someone has to. Happy Birthday, Bellevue, baby.