By Olivia Scheck
GREENWICH VILLAGE — After 160 years of delivering babies, treating the sick and responding to all manner of emergencies, St. Vincent's Hospital shuttered its doors for good on Friday morning.
After the emergency room stopped accepting patients at 7 a.m., maintenance men boarded up the doors of the hospital and were taking down signs by 8:30 a.m.
Staff members like Barbara Conanan, director of the SRO homeless program and a 28-year employee of the hospital, watched in despair as the iconic St. Vincent's flag, which once hung over Seventh Avenue, was hauled down.
"There's an empty spot where there should have been a beautiful, beautiful symbol of our values," Conanan said. "I'm numb, devastated."
Mohamed Abuelenen, 55, from Tampa, Fl., was the last patient to be treated at the hospital at 6:40 a.m. The construction worker, who suffers from asthma, said he was having trouble breathing, saw the signs for the hospital and walked in.
"There was nobody there except me," he said.
Staff members devastated by the closing attended a noon chapel service at the hospital. They were later asked to leave the building.
"It's like a funeral inside," said Eileen Dunn, who'd worked at St. Vincent's for 24 years and is president of the local chapter of the New York State Nurses Association.
"We were together on 9/11 and we're together this morning inside the ER," Dunn told reporters.
St. Vincent's was a critical element in the emergency response effort on Sept. 11, 2001, and was at the center of the city's battle against AIDS in the 1990s. Decades before, the hospital became a part of literary history when Dylan Thomas was rushed there after a monumental drinking spree at the nearby White Horse tavern. He died soon after of what a doctor described as "an "alcoholic insult" to the brain.
As staff members congregated outside the hospital on Friday morning, they described a Catholic institution that placed patient care above all else.
"The Sisters of Charity mission makes for a different approach to seeing patients," explained Dr. Anthony Starpoli, who had been a gastroenterologist at St. Vincent's for 21 years. "It's not a business, which is part of the problem."
Charles Carpati, Chief of Medical Intensive Care, who began work at the hospital the same year as Dr. Starpoli, also spoke of the staff's commitment to patients over dollars.
"I think of one particular patient that was here," Carpati said. "He had zero insurance, no money, and I remember walking him to the finance office where they said to him, 'Don't worry. You're not going to be charged anything.'"
"I think that's a pretty unusual set of verbiage to hear that from a company — 'you will not be charged,'" the doctor said.
Conanan reported that in the months before St. Vincent's began shutting down in stages, her entire department had agreed to pay cuts, believing that their gesture would help the hospital stay in business.
Beyond money, St. Vincent's staffers were willing to sacrifice their own welfare in order to provide patients with the best possible care, many staff members noted.
When a union strike left the hospital without maintenance or cleaning staff, doctors and nurses took up the slack, Dr. Carpati recalled. From doctors and nurses to orderlies and traineess, "everybody pitched in."
On 9/11, St. Vincent's staff was again at the ready, with some staff staying from 8 a.m. to midnight to treat victims, according to Edwina Sydney, a registered nurse at the hospital for 17 years.
Dr. Jesse Blumenthal, Chief of Trauma Services, said that some of his proudest memories are from that tragic day.
"Everyone did their share," Dr. Blumenthal recalled, standing in the same spot where he used a bullhorn to coordinate patients who had been injured at Ground Zero.
With St. Vincent's demise, the Lower West Side will be left with no emergency hospital care.
The state government has agreed to convert the Greenwich Village building into an urgent care center at a cost of $9.4 million, which will be run by the Upper East Side's Lenox Hill Hospital. But many staff members warned on Friday that the facility would not be able to cope with the likely torrent of patients in need of emergency care.
"I don't think the community quite realizes what's going to happen," said Dr. Starpoli, who is also a West Village resident. "Minutes can make a difference.
Ambulances will remain outside the shuttered hospital until May 14 to take patients who don't know St. Vincent's is closed to other hospitals.