Tuesday, November 2, 2010

why WELFARE ISLAND hospital mattered more to me than CUMC

I'm not rich - in fact I am poor.

I might not have made my first ever trip to New York City to 'walk the ground' that my Dawson book is set in, if it hadn't been an urgent need to help my brother dealing with stomach cancer in Belfast North Ireland in the fall of 2006.

You can't stop over in a city, before resuming your trip, if you fly.

You can if you take a bus - thank you bus companies !

International rules make you buy two very expensive air tickets instead.

But I found if I went to London via New York, I could get one cheap through ticket that put me in Newark at 8am and let me fly back out to London at 8pm.

I had basically 12 full hours to see  the Big Apple.

Travelling by bus and subway and foot on a Sunday can only move you about so fast and so far.

So I had to make choices.

I figured I could see the area of Merck's New Jersey plant and Mahoney's Staten Island hospital from the air and from the bus into Manhattan.

I did a full side trip to Brooklyn, saw the area of Pfizer's Marcy Avenue penicillin plant from the subway but spent some serious time in John L's upper class Brooklyn neighbourhood - even talked to the doorman at his old home !

I and Rebecca had arranged to meet Dawson's daughter and husband at 84th Street (in her mom's old apartment) on the Upper East Side for a quick first-ever meeting and lunch around 1 PM.

That left no time to get there and back, with certainty, to Dawson's old home in Riverdale in the uppermost Bronx, or his second last place of employment, the Columbia University Medical Centre, (CUMC) across from Riverdale in upper Manhattan, basically at the top of Harlem in Washington Heights.

I decided, instead, to go to the streets just below Shirley Dawson's home at 84th Street and work my way up to her house, staying as close as I could to the East River.

This way I could visit Dawson's first hospital that he worked at, along with Oswald Avery, on initially coming to New York.

This was the Rockefeller Institute Hospital, now part of Rockefeller University.

And I could visit the original home of  CUMC - the old Presbyterian Hospital - a place I am sure Dawson visited frequently in the late 1920s, before being hired by them to work at the new Presbyterian hospital site up at 165th Street in Washington Heights.

But these were sideshows --- what I really wanted to see, and to savour, was Roosevelt Island and the Goldwater Hospital --- which I sensed was Dawson's real spiritual home.

Yes the Goldwater Hospital for the long term care of the chronically ill, not CUMC with its strong emphasis on quick cures of acute diseases.

This despite the fact that both of Dawson's key pioneering efforts, in DNA and Penicillin ,were all done at CUMC - not at Goldwater.

But Dawson was a lifelong sort of 'patron saint' to those beings judged to be chronically unfit, chronically 4F, in a Streamlined Moderne Age that valued only the 1A ,the virile and the sleek.

(And by 'beings' judged chronically unfit, I also include creatures such as the R and L form Strep bacteria and the penicillium notatum mold.)

Curiously his wife (and now his daughter) chose to live right across from that hospital, located at the very top tip of the Island, across from from the end of 84th Street .

Roosevelt Island used to be known as Welfare Island in Dawson's day, before that it was called Blackwell's Island.

Yes, that Blackwell's Island (cue the epynomously named movie  starring John Garfield as a crusader gone undercover to expose a corrupt prison system ).

Sorta like today's Rikker's Island , but not as warm and cuddly.

Since 1832, the island has been home to New York City's less valued citizens : criminals, the indigent, the chronically ill (and of course, sometimes they are one and the same.)

Prisons for the hardened criminals, almhouses for the poor, Smallpox/TB/VD hospitals - what ever NYC didn't want to look at , the island took in.

But Dawson and an enlightened Commissioner of Hospitals under Mayor La Guardia (SS Goldwater) saw the island differently.

Robert Moses and La Guardia wanted the prison razed - as did everyone in the city - after the last and biggest scandal associated with it.

But these two politicos saw it becoming a park ---effectively a local park for the (already extremely rich) Upper East Side.

Dawson and Goldwater agreed the site was park-like , but asked 'why not make a park-like multi-hospital for the chronically ill there instead - let them enjoy the view and it will only help heal their woes'.

Dawson would be in charge of the new hospital's serious research efforts to reduce chronic illness's pain and suffering - something medical science had greatly neglected.

Amazingly, the two won their case - and the work was started.

The war stopped it and after the war, with both dead, it was never resumed.

Still the AGAPE Penicillin Project filled the hours (and the intent) that Dawson had hoped to pour into this never-to-be-finished home for the chronically ill and for the doctors who love them, despite their handicaps.

This local, New York, loss was to prove to be the world's gain.

I am very glad I went to see it - it made me feel at one with Dawson, if only briefly....

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