There’s a line in an episode of the classic sitcom The Honeymooners that’s always been a favorite in my family. Alice jokingly attempts to seduce her alarmed husband, Ralph, by purring, “I call you ‘killer’ ’cause you slay me.” He replies, “And I’m calling Bellevue ’cause you’re nuts!”
It always gets a big laugh.
I thought of that joke repeatedly while reading BELLEVUE, David Oshinsky’s exhaustive history of New York City’s flagship hospital. The joke illustrated the way Bellevue Hospital has been—and continues to be—viewed by the general public: a place for the mentally ill, often those dangerously so. Since I’m a native New Yorker and have family members working in the medical field, you would think I’d have a better understanding of Bellevue and its incredible work in improving public health in my hometown. But alas, stereotypes are notoriously hard to break.
I picked up BELLEVUE determined to try to get a more clear idea of just how far New York has come—and how far it has to go—in healing those who are most vulnerable. What I discovered in this compulsively readable work of in-depth research was a startling tale of the evolution of medicine, disease, and the fiercely human drive to conquer death.
Oshinsky’s book is also a history of New York City, because, as arguably the country’s first public hospital, Bellevue is quite literally a microcosm of the diverse city it serves. From its start as an almshouse in the eighteenth century to its inception of the first nursing school in the United States to its crucial work during the AIDS epidemic and Ebola panic, Bellevue has been the heartbeat of New York.
Rather than being overwhelming in scope or length, I found BELLEVUE to be easily accessible and I was repeatedly shocked at how incredibly recent so many of the events in the book are. My sister is a registered nurse, and it was jarring to realize our country’s first nursing school was created only a little more than a century ago. In the span of human history, that’s barely a blink. But during that relatively short period of time, Bellevue Hospital has quite literally seen it all.
Yet, it is still often equated with the dark and dangerous mental institutions of the distant past in the public imagination. Oshinsky effortlessly explains where this typecast came from (Nellie Bly’s sensational TEN DAYS IN A MAD-HOUSE and Hollywood’s propensity to film inside the institution for some of its more eerie hospital scenes) and illustrates just how little the average person truly knows of Bellevue’s indispensable role in New York and the country at large. Modern medicine owes a great deal to the facility that has often been used as a punchline.
Bellevue has never been without its controversies, and Oshinsky provides an even-handed depiction of the darkest points in the hospital’s history. There were moments in this book that quite literally moved me to tears and others that made me shudder in horror. But more than anything, BELLEVUE often spurred me into quickly researching names and events to discover more about health care in my city. For me, that is the sign of a great work of nonfiction—it deepens your thirst for knowledge and opens your eyes to how much there is to learn. And if science and medicine teach us anything, it’s that we have so much to understand and discover.