When Joe Schick Head of Special Projects at the HHC calls you jump. HHC is the wing of the New York City Government that runs all the public hospitals. I had been working for them for about 8 years on various projects and I still remember the first time Joe called. He said that I was being awarded an all expense paid trip to Bellevue Hospital. Oh brother. But then I got to Bellevue I was blown away by the Hospital and the people who worked there. The more I learned the more impressed I became. Quick for instance: this system of 11 major hospitals is the largest municipal healthcare organization in the country. It serves 1.4 million patients every year and more than 475,000 of those patients are uninsured. Thirty three percent of the patients that walk through the door are uninsured and not only does the place hold it together it delivers excellent care.
Joe had a special project. It turns out that one of Mayor Bloomberg’s signature legacy accomplishments- the new High Tech University was being sited on Roosevelt Island. The only trick was that Goldwater Specialty Hospital stood in the way. Goldwater is the Public Hospital System’s nursing home. And, boy, is it old school. Built as a TB hospital in the 1930’s it has 2000 beds, 400 yard long halls, a greenhouse, an auditorium and, yes, solariums. In it you will find everyone from NYC who needs a high level of chronic care and no money to pay for it. Elder folk who need a nursing home, stroke victims, car crash victims, and gun shot victims among others populate the halls. The Hospital is being raised in November to clear the land for the University. Joe’s idea was to memorialize Goldwater and its community in a booklet before it was gone.
The team: Joe Schick- Pack Leader, Robert Dweck- Graphic Designer, Jeanne Waller- Wrangler, and John Rae- Photoguy
Now- even though I was a well seasoned HHC partner- nursing homes give me pause. Goldwater did not disappoint. The patients were indeed in need of special care. Almost all patients were either bed ridden or in wheel chairs. Bent and misshapen bodies were the norm. The first day was tough. The second day was better. From the third day on I began to understand and feel the strength of the community. I began to see why Joe thought that Goldwater was a special place. Some of the patients had been there for 40 or 50 years. The stories that began to come out were extraordinary. I met Beth who was 9 years old and two weeks away from getting her vaccination when polio struck. She told us that she was taken to Goldwater and put in an iron lung. She could not be more than 4 and a half feet tall. But two marriages and 55 years later she comes back to Goldwater on the motorized wheelchair to volunteer. She did also mention that iron lungs were a great place to make out.
The staff are saints. I do not care what any one thinks about public medicine but here are people who, in the course of providing daily care, are cleaning ulcers, clearing breathing passages, doing suctioning things, and provide for every other close care need I care not to imagine. All for (if you will excuse the phrase) crappy pay.
Then there is this guy named Hank Carter. Mr Carter is Goldwater. Handsome, well dressed, and of indeterminate age, he has led a transformation at Goldwater. Turns out that Mr Carter grew up in the Queensboro Projects just across the river from Goldwater. He was in a gang- in fact leader of the gang- doing what gang guys did before the drug epidemics of the 60s and 70s- defending his turf. He was drafted to serve in Vietnam and that service began the personal transformation. Upon returning to the Projects Mr Carter used his position and power to fight the influx of drugs to his neighborhood.
At one point rival gangs put a $100,000 bounty on his head- real money. The turning point came when Tjader, a rival gang leader, was caught in the crossfire of a drug deal gone bad. Tjader ended up in the hospital and was expected not to live. Then a strange thing happened. He had heard of Mr Carter and asked for him to come to the hospital. That was his only request. No family, no religious leader, no friends- Mr Carter. Tjader told him that he was right about the drugs. Mr Carter and Tjader became friends. Tjader actually pulled through and was placed in Goldwater paralyzed from the waist down. Now here’s the rub. As Mr Carter visited Tjader at Goldwater he began to see a population completely dependent on staff and manual wheelchairs. These chairs are confining if you are a parapeligic but worthless if you are a quadrapalegic. So Mr Carter started Wheelchair Charities. He has been able to raise enough money to give just about everyone who needs one an electric wheelchair. And these chairs can cost upwards of $30-$40k. Now remember the 400 yard long halls Goldwater. The patients are flying down the hallways- half of them steering with their noses. And they are good. I asked Tjader if there are races after hours- you know 3 across around corner 2- but with a smile he said ‘oh no, there are speed limits and they will take away your chair if you are a repeat offender’.
So Mr Carter has made a difference. So much so that the replacement hospital that is being build in Harlem will be named after him. At the opening event of the Hank J Carter Specialty Hospital the Mayor and 250 other high ranking officials were expected to attend but the event planners are having trouble keeping the guest list under 2500 people who wanted to honor Mr Carter. Mr Carter is the real deal- if he reads this post he will be upset that the story is about him and not all the others who helped.
Goldwater is being cleared out now but it’s spirit will live on.