Beauty, horror, and the bones of St. Clare

Maggie Dubris, like me, is a retired NYC paramedic. Also, like me, she worked for a hospital that was contracted to the NYC Emergency Medical Service, prior to and after the merger of EMS into the fire department (FDNY). “Voluntary hospitals,” in NYC parlance. Of course, there is nothing voluntary about them. We all got paid for working with our respective EMS departments, in two totally different environments. It’s simply a term to describe a hospital not owned and run by the Health and Hospitals Corporation, that runs all the city owned hospitals.

Maggie’s EMS units, operating out of St. Clare’s Hospital, covered the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan. This is the area just west of Times Square, running from approximately the early 50’s, down, through high 30’s. It was made famous through musicals such as West Side Story, and the book and movie, “Bringing Out The Dead,” the latter of which was written by Maggie’s former colleague and friend at St. Clare’s, Joe Connelly. My EMS units worked out of St. Mary’s Hospital in Brooklyn, and covered the Bedford~Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights sections of Brooklyn.

“Brokedown Palace” is the most recent non-fiction novel that she has written, and while I’m only just past the halfway point in the book, it has flooded my brain with memories of my own time in EMS. “Brokedown Palace” is a stew, or rather a stock, of personal family history, of EMS calls and experiences, and of the history of St. Clare’s itself. The bones that make up this stock are the people, EMS personnel, patients, hospital administrators and others. Like any good stock, it is a story that has been simmering since the early 80’s when Maggie began working as an EMT for St. Clare’s. But it’s more than a simple story of life in EMS. She weaves poetry and prose into imagery that will make you laugh, cry, and a host of other emotions.

Maggie’s ability to paint with words is apparent from the first page. She is able to transport you out of the book, and into her world. You can smell the stench of both the streets, and the hospital interiors. The sights and sounds have triggered my own memories of my own time in Brooklyn. Her recounting of the AIDS crisis hit home like a jackhammer. While we were both there from the beginning, I had a more personal insight as HIV killed my father in 1988 from a blood transfusion he received during cardiac bypass surgery in 1984. The prejudices she describes that the patients she encountered I experienced firsthand with my own father.

The junkies, and other denizens of Hell’s Kitchen were not unfamiliar. They existed in Brooklyn as well. Only the location and circumstances have changed. What is practically identical is the camaraderie, closeness, and outright love for the hospitals we both worked for. We both worked for places that were straining to provide medical care under the most difficult of circumstances, to an under served, often poor population.

St. Mary’s and St. Clare’s. Maggie writes about the bones of St. Clare being somewhere buried in the hospital itself. I never had any idea where the bones of St. Mary were buried. Both hospitals however, are now both dead and buried, the victims of a changing healthcare scene, and of poor management practices.

All we both have left are the rich memories that have impacted both of our lives, some beautiful, some horrific, but all very real.

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