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Hospital Patients Forced Out as Roosevelt Island Tech Campus Moves In

By Amy Zimmer | May 3, 2012 7:52am | Updated on May 3, 2012 11:25am
Armand Xama, 30, does not want to be moved to a nursing home when Goldwater Hospital closes, but that's his only option right now.
Armand Xama, 30, does not want to be moved to a nursing home when Goldwater Hospital closes, but that's his only option right now.
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DNAinfo/Amy Zimmer

ROOSEVELT ISLAND — The tech campus heralded as making New York City even more cutting edge isn't being celebrated by everyone on Roosevelt Island.

For Armand Xama, 30, a paraplegic injured in a diving accident five years ago, it means he needs to start looking for a new home.

Xama has lived at the island's Goldwater Hospital for nearly two years, but the nursing home and long-term rehabilitation center is set to close by December 2013 to make way for Cornell University's tech campus.

Xama is worried he'll be put in a nursing home.

Over the next 18 months, roughly 800 patients will have to be relocated from the 9.9-acre complex on the southern end of Roosevelt Island, built in 1939 as the first public hospital devoted to chronic diseases.

City officials had announced in 2010 that the outmoded Goldwater was slated to close but had not released a moving date at that time. The timeline was only announced after selecting the winning tech campus, which expects its first building on the island in 2017.

Few patients know where they're going yet, though the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation plans to move some to a renovated space in Harlem’s former North General Hospital. Others are going to a new apartment building that will rise on East Harlem's Metropolitan Hospital campus, and more will be scattered across various housing facilities across the city. 

"I like this place. Because it's big, you get more services," said Xama, praising Goldwater's gym and weekly movie nights.

"I know I'm going to miss this view," he said of the quiet promenade overlooking Manhattan that he visits regularly in his wheelchair.

Goldwater's sister facility at the northern end of Roosevelt Island, Coler, will still have 800 beds for rehab patients, officials said.

Goldwater is presently home to 476 patients who have suffered spinal-cord injuries, strokes or have degenerative conditions such as cerebral palsy and require care focused on rehabilitation and improving functions for daily living, HHC officials said.

Another 323 are medically fragile patients in need of long-term acute care that can’t be provided at other hospitals. More than 100 of these patients are on ventilators — one of the largest such programs in the country.

For these most serious patients, the former North General hospital will have 201 beds. Another 164 beds will be created there for the rehab patients, HHC officials said. 

What will happen to more than 400 other patients is less clear, for now.

Roughly 300 "could benefit from community-based long-term care and affordable, accessible housing," HHC spokeswoman Evelyn Hernandez wrote in an email.

"To address these individuals' needs we are working with a developer to build a 171 studio and one-bedroom apartment building on a parcel of land on the Metropolitan Hospital campus at Second Avenue and 99th Street."

She also said the hospital’s staff is working with  "supportive housing providers, community-based organizations, the patients/residents and their families to secure appropriate community housing."

But some patients are worried about their options.

Xama, who was injured shortly after winning a Green Card lottery and moving from Albania, has never worked in the U.S. Without Social Security income he was told he was ineligible for supportive housing. 

His Medicaid benefits will, however, cover a nursing home, he said.

"That's not a solution for me," Xama said. "Spinal cord injury people want to live their lives. We don’t have dementia. We just need accessibility."

Ultimately Xama, who has a degree in mechanical engineering from Albania, wants to get a job and have his own place.

Ryan Dugan, 50, who also ended up in a wheelchair after a diving accident, tried to get subsidized housing last year but when it came time to sign a lease for a subsidized unit, the Rochester native was turned away when he couldn’t provide a birth certificate.

He is having trouble getting the document because he had changed his last name from Mummert to Dugan after his mother remarried when he was 5.

Dugan fears he, too, will be sent to a nursing home.

"I’d like to be able to live independently," said Dugan, who was injured in 1983 and landed at Goldwater six years ago because of a skin problem.

Fran Brown, of the Alan T. Brown Foundation to Cure Paralysis, said that putting paralyzed people into nursing homes could be detrimental.

"If we are talking about a young person, it’s not conducive or targeted to any of their interests whatsoever," she said. "I don’t mean to be negative, but there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for them.”

Many advocates are also worried about what will happen to hundreds of undocumented immigrants at Goldwater. 

While North General will serve those individuals, undocumented patients will not be eligible for the federal rental subsidies that support the housing expected to rise on East 99th Street, HHC officials said.

Though Angel Santiago, 55, who came to the center eight years ago following a stroke that resulted in a two-year coma, said he's a citizen, born in Puerto Rico, he doesn’t have his birth certificate and isn’t sure where he’ll be able to go.

The formerly homeless Santiago suggested he might go back to the streets.

Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled, acknowledged that many individuals may have special circumstances. Her group will soon be helping Goldwater residents with resources and information, she said.

"Low-income housing is virtually nonexistent," she said. "And people with disabilities, for the most part, don’t qualify for supportive housing," which is often set aside for people with developmental or psychiatric disabilities.

"To their credit," she said, "Coler-Goldwater is trying to be creative in finding housing."

She said the closure was "a hugely exciting opportunity" to "help people to return to the community when they really don’t need nursing home-level care or they do, but can be receiving it in the community."

But some patient advocates are still concerned.

"If the spaces are not available, if they’re not done right — if they’re overcrowded, not adequate or not appropriate— there could be havoc," Judy Wessler, director of the Commission on the Public Health System advocacy group, said.

"A lot of moving pieces, if not worked out well, could be tragic for people."

Some people have been at Goldwater for 20 years.

"The thing about places like Coler and Goldwater is that they are home," Wessler said. "It’s very difficult for people to give up their home."