When sick New Yorkers failed to find a place in private institutions like New York Hospital, they turned to public hospitals like Bellevue. At the depths of the Depression, about half the people in the city were eligible for free care in the municipal hospitals because they qualified as “medically indigent” – that is, they could not afford private health care. Not all availed themselves of the privilege, but hundreds of thousands did.
Serving this great number of patients put a tremendous strain on the capacities and the environment of the public hospitals. A journalist in 1933 contrasted the city’s half-empty private hospitals to the chaotic scene at Bellevue, where the wards were packed with row upon row of beds – “not high hospital beds, but miscellaneous cots, some unpainted, some sagging so low that reaching down to care for their occupants taxed the back muscles of the scurrying nurses.” Out on to the balconies, the journalist discovered still more patients, lying in beds barely sheltered from the falling rain. Four years later another reported visited Bellevue and found matters even worse. “Were ever the sick and suffering packed in more wretchedly anywhere,” he asked, “except in military hospitals after a great battle?”
The Spartan conditions took a toll on everyone treated at Bellevue during the 1930s. Yet many of the patients must also have recognized the value of the service the hospital was providing. This juxtaposition of positive and negative can be seen in one woman’s description of a night on the wards. Her account (written originally in Yiddish) portrays Bellevue as both awesome and protective, an institution that is huge and overcrowded but also somehow nurturing:
It is night…From time to time I fall asleep and wake again…Nurses and orderlies [are] still keeping watch over the sick. Meanwhile, I observe the titanic task of Bellevue Hospital. Row upon row of occupied beds…It is indeed a gigantic factory where healing is brought to mortal flesh…I see the patients, statuelike in our beds…and all around us the doctors and nurses constantly laboring to relieve our fevers and diminish our pains.
(Excerpted from No One Was Turned Away: The Role of Public Hospitals in New York City Since 1900 by S. Opdycke Oxford University Press, 1999, pp 76-77. Reprinted with permission.(