8. Bellevue

“Taken to Bellevue — it’s a phrase nearly as old as New York City.”

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital, David Oshinsky

As you can probably guess from the title, this is a history of Bellevue, New York City’s public hospital.  It holds a place in the public imagination as a center of madness and mayhem - but it is also one of the great teaching hospitals, and has been on the forefront of American medicine throughout its storied history.  Oshinsky starts with the foundation of the hospital as an almshouse infirmary for the city’s very poorest plague (malaria, typhoid, yellow fever, cholera) victims, and takes us through the present day.  He demonstrates how it has been a central part not just of New York history but also of American medical history.  So many interesting and terrible things happened there - from Nellie Bly’s madhouse expose, to the terrible plague of AIDS deaths in the 80’s and 90’s.  It’s a fascinating subject.

BUT. I found the book sort of boring. The subject is inherently interesting, but — I don’t know, something was off.  There were, as any book like this must have, some super amusing parts and anecdotes, but as a whole it just didn’t do it for me.  Somehow it seemed both too long and too short.  Like I kept checking to see how much was left, but when I was finished I felt like I hadn’t gotten enough information on many, many topics.  Like, the aforementioned AIDS crisis, and how the hospital, being in New York and thus the forefront of the epidemic was dealing with it - it’s the subject of a chapter but could be a 325 page book in itself.  Or the stuff at the end about what happened during Hurricane Sandy and how the hospital had to be closed for the first time in its history.  Or the section on how certain children were basically guinea pigs for electro-shock and other psychiatric experiments in the 1950s.  Honestly, the modern stuff seemed so rushed that I wish the book had been 600 pages instead of 325. 

Maybe I’m being unfair - I was interested in the beginning when he explained how early medicine “worked” (I put that in quotes because it barely worked and seems mostly to consist of bleeding people and giving them whiskey), and how it slowly developed into science.  Ditto how the hospital went from being basically a warehouse of sick people to a place where people got real treatment and actually recovered.  No one (really, no one) believes in medical science more than this Stage IV cancer patient who is still kicking 4 years after diagnoses, so it’s an important topic, and the book covers interesting material.  It’s just that somehow in totality for me it fell flat. Not a glowing recommendation, I know.

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017