Episode 35 “AIDS”: with Michael Bronsky,
Professor, Harvard University.
On a hot midsummer night in June of 1969, a group of police officers stormed into Greenwich Village’s tiny Stonewall Inn, one of Manhattans early gay and lesbian bars. The patrons of Stonewall revolted. For many this confrontation would eventually become known as the Gay Liberation Movement.
As a result, New York City became the rallying place for gay men throughout the country.
Beginning in the early 1980’s a terrifying and mysterious disease appeared. For the next twenty years the disease known as AIDS, would eventually take the lives of over 100,000 people in New York City alone. Many would end up on Hart Island.
This is their story.
by Michael LeFlem
Camille Caracappa, a twenty-three-year-old nurse at Bellevue Hospital in the mid-1980s, was unprepared for a strange new outbreak that seemed to affect young men. They generally complained of the same symptoms: vomiting, diarrhea, chronic fatigue, weight loss, cough and shortness of breath, fever, chills and sores or lesions above and below the skin surface.
Caracappa had seen them come in sudden waves, monitored their vital stats and asked her resident doctors which courses of treatment would best help them. They only gave her noncommittal answers, telling her to keep them comfortable and await test results.
In an interview on Bellevue’s sixteenth floor she said, “In an instant, all I could feel was a wave of fear.” On a wall behind her was a sign that said, “The Only Difference between This Place and the Titanic Is…They Had a Band!”
There was a palpable sense of hopelessness among medical personnel that a horrible medical mystery was brewing. The mystery illness would have a name: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, also known as AIDS. It is a disease that impairs the immune system by killing white blood cells, leaving the body unable to fight certain kinds of infections and cancers. In most cases, the prognosis was death.
Camille was one of a handful of nurses who had accidentally pricked their skin with needles used on these young men. While she never contracted the disease, she was terrified by her daily proximity to these young patients who were flooding the wards.
By 1985, almost 15,400 cases of AIDS had been reported in the United States—one-third of them in New York. Ronald B. Milch, the director of Bellevue Hospital, complained that the institution “receives $460 a day from the city for each patient, most of who have no hospital insurance. This is because the majority of AIDS patients at Bellevue are drug users who have come ‘off the street’ or from Rikers Island, or homosexuals who have exhausted what private hospital coverage they had.”
The AIDS outbreak cost Bellevue a staggering $900 a day to treat afflicted patients. This unexpected, draining figure posed a serious financial burden on the hospital. Nursing layoffs and financial shortcuts were put in place, but they limited and negatively impacted patient care. A total of at least seven hours of care each day were required by some AIDS patients.
Bellevue remained in the front line of hospital care through the 1980s. As the number of AIDS patients rose at Bellevue, so too did the number of deceased patients—more than at any other in New York.
Over a twenty-year period beginning in 1980, the bodies of more than fifteen hundred victims of AIDS were sent to Hart Island from Bellevue Hospital.
For all the reasons that burial on Hart Island is associated with the saddest kind of anonymity, the only marked gravestone on Hart Island lies deep in a wooded area. It was innocently discovered in the early 1990s by a curious visitor.
Near an insignificant mound of earth is a plain white gravestone. It is the grave of the first child in New York to die of AIDS (1985). The name and sex are unknown. The only identification etched into the stone is the Department of Corrections’ code “SC-B1.” It means “Special Child—Baby #1″.
“New York City’s Hart Island: A Cemetery of Strangers”