The evolution of medical care in the United States is as scary as it is fascinating. Today it is hard to fathom the once draconian methods physicians used to treatment even the most common ailments. In fact, methods were so primitive, a patient was more likely to die at a hospital than at home. Of course now, the opposite is most likely to happen. America is home for some of the best hospitals in the world and cutting edge medical care. But the path taken to reach this point was long, torturous and in some cases, shocking beyond belief. At the center of the development in hospital care was a facility that became an icon in New York City, Bellevue Hospital. The hospital which is still open today, has a long history that is largely unknown. And the patients admitted there today are most likely highly unaware of the hospital’s storied past and how it came one of the City’s leading medical facilities.
Pulitzer Prize winner David Oshinksy has compiled this incredible investigative report into the history of Bellevue. And it is all here; the good, the bad and the extreme ugly. Through exhaustive research, he has carefully reconstructed the history of the hospital and others in the City of New York. And although Bellevue is the subject of the book, the provides fascinating details about the origins of other hospitals in the City, some of which are no longer in existence. St. Vincent’s is the first to come to mind. The founders of these hospitals and the early pioneers of treatment there have been forgotten over time but Oshinsky brings them all back to life as he examines their lives and their contributions to the field of medicine. The book feels like a step back into time to an era in which emergency care often resulted in an emergency itself.
As a native New Yorker, I have passed Bellevue both on foot and by car dozens of times. In fact, my mother had a brief admission there several years ago. However at no time was I even vaguely aware of the importance of the place in which I stood. The history contained within the walls of the hospital is nothing short of astounding. And having read this phenomenal work, I can exclaim that I had grateful for all of the advancements made in the field of medicine. And I know that I do have to go to Bellevue, I will be in the care of the some of the best physicians New York City has to offer. But as Oshinsky shows us, Bellevue also has a very dark past that often bordered on the unreal.
It will be hard for readers to imagine what medical care used to be like during a time when doctors were still learning how to treat even common conditions. In an era before anesthesia, antibiotics and even proper sanity conditions, most patients entered the hospital and never left. Those who did die, ran the risk of ending up in potter’s field which at the time existed in more than one location in the city. As plagues swept through the City, the death toll mounted as doctors struggled to keep up. Their attempts to treat the conditions and the solutions employed were beyond surreal and today they would be considered criminal. Bellevue, while an early pioneer for above standard medical care, was not exempt and carries to this day, a fair number of its own horror stories that turned a blossoming hospital into the scorn of the City. These stories included horrific medical practices, insufficient security and criminal neglect. However, through every major crisis faced by the City of New York, Bellevue’s doors were always open and have remained so to this day. Even in times when ethnicity determined where you received medical treatment and mental institutions could not contain the sick, Bellevue took in all comers and that tradition has continued.
For those who are history lovers and want to know about the City of New York and in particular Bellevue hospital, this is the place to start. Not only will you learn about Bellevue, but you will also learn about the history of the medical field in the United States and see how far society has come and how are we still have to go for the past is always prologue .
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